Although cost-effective ways of managing the risks associated with hand arm vibration syndrome have been known for many years, the ill-health condition still carries high human and economic costs.
Forty years ago, when the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was introduced in the UK, HSE’s first director general, John Locke, described it as “a bold and far-reaching piece of legislation” and the last four decades have proven him right.
The act, and the subsequent establishment of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), marked a watershed for health and safety in the UK’s corporate community. Until that point, ‘safety first’ would have drawn many blank looks in the majority of workplaces, as injuries and illnesses were commonplace. HSE all of a sudden handed responsibility for employee welfare to employers.
For some of the major industries, such as construction, manufacturing and mining, the new legislation and regulations had major ramifications for their organisational structures and working processes. Investigations were held after incidents to learn what went wrong and how it could be prevented in the future. But more importantly, health and safety became a critical part of how a company could differentiate itself from the competition, as training sessions instilled the company’s health and safety culture into employees.
The figures speak for themselves. By 2013, fatal injuries to employees had fallen by 85% (RIDDOR) and reported non-fatal injuries to 2012 had fallen by 77% (RIDDOR).
One of the major step changes in corporate mentality has been the shift in perception of health and safety from a regulatory obligation to a bottom-line driver. Suddenly, employers across the country realised that by managing the health and welfare of their employees they could not only reduce fatalities and injuries at work, but also keep their employees fit and happy (thereby also reducing turnover and absence).
However, despite the increased acceptance of the business benefits of good health and safety practices, there are still a number of injuries and illnesses that go largely unmanaged or unheeded in the workplace. Hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) is one of them.
Managing the risks of HAVS
Regardless of 40 years of advice, around 300,000 employees are estimated to have advanced symptoms of HAVS in the UK and over two million are at increased risk of the syndrome because they are exposed to hand arm vibration levels above the limit set by HSE.
A recent report issued by Reactec looking at the economic impact of HAVS highlighted the fact that the cost of the syndrome to employers is around £1.32bn (comprising sick pay, insurance premiums, production disturbance costs and administrative and legal costs). Indeed, only with the recent and increasing volume of compensation claims from employees against their former paymasters, have employers begun to sit up and take notice.
HSE sets out minimum requirements for HAVS risk management, enforced by the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005. The regulations clearly state that tool users must not be exposed to levels of vibration above the daily exposure action value of 2.5m/s2 A(8) without action being taken to control exposure, and must not exceed the daily exposure limit value of 5m/s2 A(8).
In spite of such clear guidance, many companies struggle to maintain an effective HAV risk management policy or even keep it on their to-do list, as it is perceived as a lower risk than other issues.
Testing for vibration output; health screening, training and educating employees on best practice and why they should support HAV monitoring is only the beginning. The challenge is to create a procedure to monitor and manage HAV that is supported by all individuals of the company and is accurate, efficient and effective.
Technology for better monitoring
Where they were once heavily relied on, paper-based monitoring systems are now comparatively inaccurate, outdated and costly. More importantly, simply monitoring HAVS risk with paper-based systems does not necessarily mean that you are complying with the law.
Operators tend to over-estimate when guessing tool usage at the end of a shift or even fabricate the data to get it out of the way. Inaccurate data can result in operators being removed from tools that have higher levels of vibration and inhibit their ability to continue working during a shift or project, thus increasing the time of completion.
What’s more, employers must assess whether the limited and inaccurate data gained from paper-based monitoring provides enough information from which to manage risk, not just monitor it. Compiling the paperwork and making sense of the data is a challenge in itself.
Affected industries are in agreement that better risk management and more robust control of exposure to HAV is imperative. More accurate data means not having to replace skilled personnel that overestimate their exposure levels, resulting in excessive restrictions on their use of powered hand tools, which ultimately extends project timetables and costs. The fact is, HAVS is preventable if effective monitoring and reporting systems are used as part of the overall risk reduction plan.
Putting the right systems in place to monitor exposure to harmful levels of HAV is not only good practice from a health and safety perspective, but will also help to prevent the unnecessary costs associated with a diagnosis of HAVS in the workplace.
Costs to human health and to company finances are high. Yet it really doesn’t need to be that way. Given that there are clear, simple and cost effective ways of monitoring exposure to HAV levels, HAVS is a totally unnecessary and preventable disease incurring huge costs at a time when many industries are doing all they can to remain competitive.
Jacqui McLaughlin is CEO of Reactec
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