Have you heard of hand-arm vibration syndrome? If you haven’t, hand-arm vibration syndrome or HAVS is a very serious condition which, if left untreated, can potentially require the amputation of the fingers or hand.

The condition is caused by vibration transferred to the hand and arm through the use of power tools, or other vibrating machinery. The condition is commonly experienced by workers who regularly use tools such as jackhammers, chainsaws, grinders, drills, riveters, and impact wrenches.

According to the UK Government Health and Safety Executive workers who are particularly at risk of hand-arm vibration injury are those who use such tools for more than 15 minutes each day.

In this article we take a look at the signs and symptoms of HAVS, how this can be prevented and when you may be able to claim for such an injury.
As HAVS has the potential to affect numerous Australian workers the question must be asked whether these workers would recognise the signs and symptoms of a hand-arm vibration injury. Perhaps many wouldn’t...

Exposure to HAVS can result in disrupted circulation in the hand and forearm and/or damage to the nerves and tendons, muscles, bones and joints of the hand and arm.

Workers with exposure to vibration may experience:
  • Pain in the hands and arms;
  • Diminished muscle strength;
  • Episodes of whitening of the fingers (usually after years of exposure).
So how many workers are possibly affected by vibration exposure?
In 2008 the National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance (NHEWS) conducted a survey to determine the current nature and extent of Australian workers’ exposure to selected occupational disease causing hazards, including hand-arm vibration injury.

The report found:
  • Approximately 24% of Australian workers were exposed to vibration in their workplace;
  • The industries most likely to be exposed to vibration were agriculture, forestry and fishing, transport and storage, and construction;
  • The occupations most likely to be exposed to vibration were machinery operators and drivers, technicians and trades workers, and labourers;
  • 43% of vibration-exposed workers were exposed to hand-arm vibration only, 38% were exposed to whole body vibration only and 17% were exposed to both hand-arm and whole body vibration;
  • 41% of vibration-exposed workers reported they were exposed for up to a quarter of their time at work, while 21% reported they were exposed for between a quarter and half of their time at work, 15% reported they were exposed for between half and three quarters of their time at work, and 24% reported they were exposed for more than three quarters of their time at work;
  • Only 27% of vibration-exposed workers reported they received training;
  • Large percentages of vibration-exposed workers in smaller workplaces reported they were not provided with any vibration control measures.
Given the statistics above regarding how often workers are exposed to vibration, consideration must be given to whether there are any guidelines as to how much exposure to vibration is too much and what level is regarded as safe.

In Europe there are mandatory requirements recommending that daily vibration exposure should remain below 2.5 m/s2 averaged over an eight-hour day and never more than 5 m/s2 over an eight-hour day.

There are no such mandatory exposure levels currently imposed in Australia. But should there be?
Safe Work Australia states that workers and employers should be guided by the European mandatory requirements. But is this good enough given the employers duty of care owed to their employees to keep them safe from injury?

Having set rules and guidelines about what levels of vibration an employer can safely expose their employee to would certainly assist and perhaps even prevent many HAV injuries.

So what are your options if you have suffered a hand-arm vibration injury at work?
An employer has a primary duty of care to ensure the health and safety of their employees in the workplace. This extends to eliminating the risks of exposure to HAV, and where this is not possible to minimise the exposure as far as it is reasonably practicable.

An employer must also provide information, instruction and training to those employees who use vibrating equipment. If an employer fails to do this and an employee suffers an injury as a result, then they may be liable in negligence.

Your employer may reduce your exposure to HAV by using a combination of control measures such as:
  • Substituting alternative methods or processes to eliminate the need to use vibrating hand-held tools;
  • Selecting tools with low vibration emission levels to eliminate or minimise exposure to vibration;
  • Modifying existing tools to either minimise the vibration or prevent the vibration from moving into the handle of the tool;
  • Directing cold air away from the worker’s hand;
  • Maintaining equipment regularly to minimise vibration;
  • Modifying work methods to reduce exposure to vibration;
  • Altering work practices and the way work is organised too reduce exposure to vibration.
Employers can also provide employees with information, instruction and training including:
  • health effects of HAVS;
  • sources of HAV and how vibration can be minimised, like the choice of process or equipment;
  • how to recognise and report symptoms of hand-arm vibration injury; and
  • where necessary, training in how to use equipment to minimise vibration and how to reduce grip force.
Currently, little is known about the actual vibration exposure levels of Australian workers or which workers (as identified by employment and demographic characteristics) are exposed to vibration.

What is known however is that between 2000-01 and 2007-08, there were approximately 400 workers’ compensation claims per year for injuries or illness that resulted from exposure to vibration.

Employers have a duty of care to keep their employees safe from the effects of vibration and hand-arm vibration injury. Should they fail to do so, they may be held liable in negligence. Safe vibration limits may go a long way in reducing the number of injuries and claims for compensation.

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