Working in road construction, we use jackhammers a lot. We’re constantly breaking through concrete to do one repair or another. Lately, I’ve been feeling a tingling sensation in my right hand. I talked to my supervisor and he told me about hand-arm vibration syndrome. I never thought much about what the jackhammer could be doing to me. But now that we know, we take turns using it. The tingling went away and I'm feeling good now. But I hate to imagine what could have happened if I just ignored it.
What Is Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome?
It’s an everyday reality for many workers: vibrating tools and machines. It’s also a hidden health and safety risk that can lead to the painful and irreversible condition known as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS).
Hand-arm vibration syndrome is an occupational disease affecting workers across a wide range of industries. It is caused by repeated and frequent use of hand-held vibrating tools. The condition generally progresses slowly, beginning with tingling, numbness, and pain in the hands and then developing into further injury or disease.
If the symptoms are addressed at the onset, it’s possible prevent further injury to the hands. However, continued work may lead to vibration-induced white finger (VWF), one of the most common conditions among operators of vibrating tools.
Vibrations can cause changes to the tendons, muscles, bones, and joints. While HAVS is preventable, the damage is permanent once it’s done. Full-blown hand-arm vibration system syndrome often results in a number of painful and irreversible conditions:
- Attacks of whitening in one or more fingers when exposed to cold
- Pain and cold sensations between VWF attacks
- Tingling or loss of sensation in fingers
- Loss of light touch
- Loss of grip strength
- Bone cysts in fingers and wrists
Who Is Most at Risk of HAVS?
There is no one industry that is affected. Workers in many different lines of work are at risk:
- Road and railway maintenance
- Estate management (e.g. grounds maintenance, parks, water courses, road verges)
- Heavy engineering
- Concrete products manufacturing
- Mines and quarries
- Motor vehicle manufacturing and repair
- Public utilities (e.g. water, gas, electricity, telecommunications)
- Airplane and ship building and repair
Workers most at risk include those who regularly use hand-held or hand-guided power tools and machines, such as:
- Concrete breakers and concrete pokers
- Sanders, grinders, and disc cutters
- Hammer drills
- Chipping hammers
- Chainsaws, brush cutters, and hedge trimmers
- Powered mowers
Workers who hold tools that vibrate while being processed by powered machinery are also at risk. In particular, those who regularly operate hammer action tools for more than 15 minutes per day or rotary and other action tools for more than one hour per day.
The Role of Organizational Management
Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the employer to protect workers against HAVS. There are a few key things that managers can do to help ensure the long-term wellbeing of employees who work with vibrating tools.
- Make sure the tools are well maintained
- Provide workers with the right tools for the job, including anti-vibration gloves
- Train workers to use the tools correctly, without excessive grip and only for as long as necessary
- Provide workers with short breaks, allowing at least 10 minutes away from the tool
- Cross-train workers where possible, spreading awareness to more workers in a shorter period of time
- Keep the work atmosphere warm to avoid to further aggravating sensitive hands
Many workers hesitate to report pain for fear of repercussions, at the detriment to their own health. Employers can help remedy this by creating an open and honest work culture where employees are encouraged to bring any and all concerns to their supervisors.
Employees Taking Their Health into Their Own Hands
Workers should not leave their health solely in the hands of their employer. One of the most effective things workers can do is to educate themselves about the risks and symptoms of HAVS. Concerned workers should ask the employer whether the job could be done in a different way, without using vibrating tools and machines. If this isn’t possible, employees should:
- Request to use suitable low-vibration tools
- Always use the correct tool for the job, which allows them to complete the work more quickly and with as little exposure to vibration as possible
- Inspect tools before use to ensure they are properly maintained
- Use vibrating tools in short durations, taking frequent breaks to do other jobs in between
- Refrain from using excessive grip
- Keep warm and dry, using gloves, waterproof materials, and heating pads as necessary
- Refrain from smoking, as this reduces blood flow and can exacerbate problems
- Massage and exercise fingers during work breaks