One of the most important health and safety issues facing many workers today is the prevention of vibration injuries from hand-held tools.
Tens of thousands of workers are injured annually through contracting Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) – otherwise known as vibration white finger (VWF) – and the condition is estimated to cost UK firms tens of millions of pounds every year in compensation, working days lost to injury and fines.
Officially listed as a prescribed condition in the UK in 1985, HAVS has now become the biggest risk facing any worker who uses vibrating tools or equipment in their daily work. Overexposure to vibration can lead to painful and disabling injuries of the blood vessels, nerves, joints and muscles in the hands and arms; and in extreme cases it can even mean the loss of fingers.
While the condition is preventable, once someone has contracted HAVS and the damage is done, it is permanent. It can leave sufferers crippled and unable to do the simplest of tasks such as picking objects up with their fingers without enduring agonising pain – meaning that in worst case scenarios when the condition is at an advanced stage the person cannot ever return to work again.
It’s an issue that is particularly important in the construction and manufacturing industries, where many workers spend large amounts of time using hand held or other vibrating tools in their daily duties. But industrial workers are not the only people at risk of contracting HAVS – as those in the grounds maintenance and highway maintenance sectors are just as likely to be exposed to the disease, along with anyone else who uses vibrating equipment regularly.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has strict regulations in place that detail the acceptable levels of vibration that workers can be exposed to. The introduction of this legislation in 2005 in the form of the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations clearly stipulated how much vibration is acceptable in the form of Exposure Action Values (EAVs) − the daily amount of vibration exposure above which employers are required to take action. The regulations also set out acceptable Exposure Limit Values (ELVs), the maximum amount of vibration anyone can safely be exposed to on a single day.
Thankfully, this legislation has already prompted some firms to take vibration management seriously, and these companies have implemented monitoring systems designed to measure workers’ exposure to vibration in order keep them within the safe limits.
But, while companies face heavy penalties for not keeping to these restrictions, the HSE only demands that they adhere to the legislation – not that they implement the best available methods of continuous vibration management.
And despite the dangers, many companies are content to do the minimum required to keep within the HSE regulations rather than investing in sufficient preventative methods to manage their workers’ exposure to HAVS.
The grim reality is that HAVS remains a major and worrying issue in industries using vibrating equipment. The HSE believes that there may be as many as 300,000 people in the UK suffering with the condition, with construction equipment in particular cited as one of the biggest causes of the disease.
The scale of the issue is also vast. An estimated two million people in the UK are exposed to the risk of vibration injuries daily due to their use of power tools and equipment, and that number is expected to rise in the coming years as the construction sector emerges from the recent recession and increasing numbers of building projects are completed.
With workers regularly using concrete breaking equipment, industrial saws, diggers, drills, lawnmowers, power tools and countless other pieces of vibrating equipment it is therefore important to ensure that an effective method of HAVS management is in place – not just as a bare minimum to meet HSE targets, but also to protect workforces from injury, protect companies from liability and to dramatically improve their bottom lines by preventing sick leave and compensation claims from their staff.
Until recently, the generally accepted method of monitoring vibration was by having workers fill out timesheets and by collating data manually in order to check exposure levels against the HSE regulations. Anyone working with vibrating tools would be required to complete a form detailing how long they’d been working with each piece of equipment during the day – and their health & safety manager would review the information to check that acceptable exposure levels had not been exceeded.
Such monitoring is still used by many companies across a range of industries today, but while it can provide a bare minimum standard for vibration safety, the problem with the system is that it does not provide 100% accurate results. Employees may forget to fill their timesheet, or just try and estimate how long they have worked with a tool – meaning that the final data is often worthless.
The danger for employers using the timesheet method is that any inaccuracy in the collection of vibration danger leaves them exposed and vulnerable to litigation if one of their members of staff contracts a vibration injury. Companies have a duty to protect their workforce and to abide by the legislation set for ensuring safety in the workplace – so unless they have an accountable, accurate and robust way of doing this, they could face heavy fines and compensation claims if their workers are injured.
The key point for vibration safety in any sector is the need for accuracy. Employers require undisputable proof of how long workers are exposed to vibration and what the intensity of their exposure.
While there are a number of options for HAV management on the market that purport to replace the timesheet method, such as protective gloves and on-site tool testing, the most accurate method of vibration management is continuous personalised monitoring.
A personalised monitoring system, such as the HAVmeter, is vital in ensuring good HAVS management. You ensure that every employee works within their acceptable levels of exposure as their individual devices are programmed with their own unique data.
Once employees reach their vibration limit for the day, they have an immediate warning indication that informs them they cannot work with those tools anymore – which completely removes the unpredictability of the timesheet method or other non-measurement systems. Manual methods of calculating exposure levels have been shown to be up to 10 times the actual exposure points compared to an automatic system.
Furthermore, it’s possible to take the data and create a comprehensive set of standard and custom reports that show workers a full breakdown of their exposure to vibration levels – which management and occupational healthcare staff can use to manage each employee’s healthcare plan. Not only does this provide additional safeguards for employee’s occupational health, but it also gives companies a robust and foolproof way of protecting themselves against liability for injuries and to avoid compensation claims.
The HAVmeter accurately collects detailed data of who has used which tool, for how long and when it was used. The level of reporting is so comprehensive that employers are able to determine detailed data on trigger time for the actual number of tools used to optimise an employer’s investment in tool purchases or rental. In addition the actual trigger time per tool is recorded to assist in determining tool service intervals. The benefits and potential costs savings in tool inventory and service costs make the business case for continuous monitoring a compelling proposition.
There’s no doubt that Hand Arm Vibration will continue to be a very real and problematic issue. For employers continuous monitoring is a must-have safety system that provides tangible benefits, not only for employee health and safety, but also on their bottom line. By keeping their workforce safe and protected, they will cut lost revenue due to absences, avoid potential compensation claims and maintain their reputation as a considerate, caring company.
Many of the major names in the construction and manufacturing sectors have already committed to continuous monitoring. Isn’t it about time that others followed suit?
Jim O’Hagan is Managing Director at Reactec Ltd, UK-wide vibration reduction experts who have developed the HAVmeter system for monitoring exposure to HAVS.
The HAVmeter is a monitoring safety device that accurately measures vibration exposure levels and trigger times on power tools and other vibrating equipment. The meters are programmed with each employee’s individual exposure limit data to ensure that HSE levels are not exceeded.