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Vibration: control exposure

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Repeated exposure to high levels of vibration is known to cause injury to workers over a period of time. Hand Arm Vibration syndrome, commonly known as HAV syndrome, is a serious and debilitating condition, and nearly 2 million people in the UK are at risk of developing it.

The limits set under the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations (2005) stipulate employers must monitor to ensure workers are below the required exposure limit, but this isn’t enough. A fundamental part of the regulations is keeping exposure “as low as reasonably practicable”.

HAV is transmitted into workers’ hands and arms from the use of hand-held power tools and hand guided equipment. The health effects are permanent, often causing long-term injury or impairment, but the cause is preventable. High-risk sectors include construction, carpentry, ground maintenance, engineering, ship building and ship repairs, where workers operate powerful tools, emitting high levels of vibration.

Health

The main health issues as the result of vibration exposure are divided into three subgroups below:

  • Vibration White Finger (Raynaud’s disease) – this is a vascular disorder caused by the restricted blood flow, causing visible blanching of the hands. In 2016, there were 455 new claims for this condition, according to HSE
  • Neurological Vibration (Carpel Tunnel Syndrome) – this problem causes tingling and numbness in the fingers, resulting in a lack of dexterity. In 2016, there were 240 new claims of workers suffering from this syndrome
  • Muscle and Soft Tissue Damage – this includes conditions such as arthritis, changes to muscles and tendonitis, which can result in loss of grip strength.

Compliance

Different jobs emit different levels of vibration; cutting brick will create different levels than cutting wood. High-powered tools are now designed with estimated vibration levels and employers should use this as a guide, indicating how long workers can operate these for. As vibration levels of tools increase over time, it is important to continue to monitor them at regular intervals. Irrespective of the task, employers must adhere to the government standards of safety that stipulates the daily exposure action value (EAV) for hand arm vibration is 2.5 m/s2 A(8).

The exposure limit value (ELV) is the maximum amount of vibration an employee may be exposed to on any single day. For hand-arm vibration, daily exposure is 5 m/s2 A(8).

High-powered tools are designed with estimated vibration levels and employers should use this as a guide. Photograph: iStock / kadmy

Monitoring

To avoid companies and workers suffering the harmful effects of vibration, employers should conduct regular vibration risk assessments of the workplace, ensuring hand tools and machinery are safe to use. This enables you to decide what workers’ exposure is likely to be, focusing on practical steps to reduce exposure and risks.

Monitoring gives employers the knowledge that tools and machinery continue to be safe for use after purchase, helping to ensure both productivity and safety. When manufactured, all monitoring devices should adhere to the standard ISO 8041.

The data from monitoring enables you to decide the individuals or groups of workings at risk from vibration, either all of the time or intermittently. HSE advice recommends positive action including changing work processes to avoid the need of hand tools, modifying the work to improve ergonomics, changing to better tools with lower vibration levels and training workers to ensure correct instructions are followed. Close observations of the workforce will ensure ill-health problems are detected.

If worker exposure is regularly reaching values beyond regulatory limits, you must consider if the work could be done in a different way.  Sustained exposure levels to just below the limits still leaves workers at risk of developing the condition.

If vibration exposure is not appropriately managed and monitored the health of workers is at risk. Employers must act to mitigate the risks and ensure the number of people currently at risk in the UK starts to reduce.

Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 available at: hse.gov.uk/vibration/wbv/regulations.htm

Tim Turney is technical product manager at Casella 

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