Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome: Managing The Risk

We have in the past talked about employers’ responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and how insurers expect employers to take reasonable steps to comply with the requirements of the Act.

Employer’s liability insurance provides cover for any injury or industrial disease suffered by an employee during the course of undertaking their duties. Managing your risk and being able to demonstrate the steps you took to do so is vital if any claim you need to make is going to be successful.

Whilst employers have made a great deal of progress over the past few decades in reducing the risk of accidents in the workplace, the focus upon occupational hazards has received less attention. This includes the effects of long-term exposure to vibration or loud noise.

What is Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS)?

Hand-arm vibration stems from the regular use of hand-held power tools. It causes painful and disabling disorders of the nerves, joints and blood vessels leading to tingling and numbness and eventually a loss of sensation in the hands and fingers and an inability to grip objects.

Anyone who uses tools such as hammer drills, chainsaws, sanders, grinders, strimmers, concrete or tarmac breakers, needle guns, chipping hammers, disc cutters, hedge trimmers, or anything that vibrates in the hand, could be susceptible to HAVS, as could workers who operate hammer action tools for in excess of 15 minutes per day or rotary or other action tools for over an hour a day.

HAVS encompasses a range of health conditions including vibration white finger, Raynaud’s disease and carpal tunnel syndrome. It is most common within certain industries including construction; road and railway building; grounds maintenance; forestry; heavy engineering; concrete manufacturing; mining and quarrying; motor vehicle manufacturing and ship building.

What Risks to Employers Face?

Unless steps are taken to avoid them, regular, sustained use of certain hand-held tools can result in a variety of incapacitating health conditions. If your employees are required to undertake activities that use such tools, then you will need to carry out a risk assessment and then follow-up by putting adequate measures in place to eliminate the risks or at least reduce them. If you fail to do so, then your business could be at risk of personal injury claims by affected staff, as well as investigation and potential fines from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

The HSE expects you as an employer to ensure that the measures you identify as necessary to reduce vibration are correctly applied and that you provide information, training and health surveillance. It is crucial to regularly review your measures, particularly if anything changes that could affect the levels of exposure in your workplace.

The trouble with occupational health problems like HAVS is that the symptoms don’t present themselves immediately. In fact, they can in some cases take several years to develop. This can lead to a sense of false security for employers, thinking that there is no immediate problem.

Fines handed out by the HSE for failings related to HAVS are known to reach six figures, demonstrating that this is a problem that is taken exceptionally seriously.

How can Employers Reduce the Risk of HAVS Claims?

Employers can take the following steps in order to mitigate the risks associated with HAVS:

Evaluation

What tasks and activities involve the use of vibrating tools and machinery? Document these ahead of assessing the risks.

Prioritisation of Risks

What level of risk assessment is required for each task? Do you need a basic assessment, or does the tool in use call for something more rigorous?

Address the Risks

In line with your risk assessment, appropriate measures of control should be put in place. Ensure sufficient breaks for workers using vibrating tools and make sure that adequate training is provided in their safe use. Training should also include how to identify symptoms of HAVS and the process for reporting them. Plans should be put in place to reduce exposure where necessary which could include moving workers to alternative jobs.

Review the Effects

Monitoring is vital. Introduce regular health reviews to examine the effects of using vibrating tools. Your risk assessment should determine the most appropriate frequency for these reviews, but they should be at least yearly.

Keep Records

If there is ever an investigation, you will need documentary evidence to demonstrate the steps you have taken to reduce the risks to your workforce. Maintaining detailed records in this respect is therefore vital.

In Summary

If your workforce uses any type of vibrating tools and could be exposed to hand-arm vibration syndrome then you MUST conduct risk assessments and then follow-up with a strategy to deal effectively with the risks you identify.

Naturally your main objective will always be to protect the health of your workforce. Days lost through ill health are exceptionally costly, and poor working conditions can lead to reduced morale and motivation. You are also aiming to reduce your risk as an employer in respect of claims and regulatory investigation.

There is a range of HAVS publications on the HSE website together with specific information for employers.