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Understanding Hand Arm and Whole-Body Vibration Syndromes

April 18, 2024 | By: Leigh Boakes

Amidst the hustle and bustle of daily operations, the risks from Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) and Whole-Body Vibration Syndrome (WBVS), often go unnoticed. These conditions, caused by prolonged exposure to vibrating tools and machinery, can seriously harm workers' health. For employers, understanding and addressing these risks is crucial. This article aims to provide you with crucial information on HAVS and WBVS, clarify the relevant regulations, and offer practical advice on safeguarding your workers' health. By taking proactive steps and implementing effective measures, businesses can create safer workplaces for their employees, free from the dangers of vibration-related ill health.

What is Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS)?

HAVS is caused by repeated and prolonged use of vibrating tools, which transmit vibrations to the hands and arms. These repetitive vibrations can lead to damage of the nerves, blood vessels, and muscles in the affected area, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Tingling or numbness: Workers may experience a tingling sensation or numbness in their fingers, hands, or arms, especially during or after using vibrating tools.
  • Loss of sensation and dexterity: As the condition progresses, individuals may experience a gradual loss of sensation or feeling in their hands, making it difficult to perform tasks that require fine motor skills.
  • Reduced grip strength: HAVS can lead to a decrease in grip strength, making it challenging to hold onto objects securely.
  • White or blanched fingers: In cold conditions or when exposed to cold temperatures, individuals with HAVS may experience episodes of white or blanched fingers, known as Raynaud's phenomenon.
  • Pain or discomfort: Persistent pain, discomfort, or stiffness in the hands, arms, or wrists is another common symptom of HAVS.

Common sources of vibration exposure include power tools such as drills, grinders, sanders, and jackhammers.

HAVS typically progresses through three stages. Initial symptoms may include occasional tingling or numbness in the fingers, particularly after using vibrating tools. These symptoms may disappear during rest periods. Symptoms become more frequent and may persist for longer periods. Loss of sensation and reduced grip strength may become more noticeable, affecting the individual's ability to perform tasks effectively. At the advanced stage, symptoms are persistent and may severely impact the individual's quality of life. There may be significant loss of sensation, accompanied by chronic pain and difficulties in performing everyday tasks.

What is Whole Body Vibration Syndrome (WBVS)?

WBVS is a condition that occurs as a result of prolonged exposure to vibrations transmitted through the entire body. Unlike HAVS, which primarily affects the hands and arms, WBVS impacts the entire body, particularly the spine and lower extremities, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Lower back pain: WBVS often manifests as chronic lower back pain, which may worsen with prolonged exposure to vibrations. The pain may be dull or sharp and may radiate to the hips or legs.
  • Muscle fatigue and discomfort: Workers with WBVS may experience muscle fatigue, stiffness, or discomfort in the lower back, thighs, or calves, especially after prolonged periods of vibration exposure.
  • Numbness or tingling sensations: Prolonged exposure to whole-body vibrations can lead to numbness, tingling, or a "pins and needles" sensation in the legs or feet.
  • Digestive issues: Some individuals may experience digestive problems such as abdominal discomfort or irregular bowel movements as a result of prolonged vibration exposure.
  • Difficulty sleeping: WBVS can interfere with sleep patterns, leading to difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep, which can further exacerbate other symptoms.

This condition is commonly observed in workers who operate heavy machinery, drive vehicles for extended periods, or work in environments where continuous vibration is present.

Health and Safety Legislation on HAVS & WBVS

Employers have a legal obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of their employees.

The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 go further to protect workers from risks related to exposure to vibration, including both hand-arm and whole-body vibration, by requiring employers to assess and control the risks associated with vibration exposure and take appropriate measures to prevent or mitigate harm.

The regulations set action levels and exposure limits for HAVS and WBVS. The exposure limits are primarily based on two metrics: vibration magnitude (measured in meters per second squared, m/s²) and exposure duration (measured in hours per day). The regulations recommend the following exposure action values (EAVs) and exposure limit values (ELVs) for hand-arm vibration and whole-body vibration:

Exposure Action Values (EAV)

  • The EAV for HAVS is typically set at an acceleration level of 2.5 m/s² (8-hour time-weighted average).
  • The EAV for WBVS is typically set at a vibration magnitude of 0.5 m/s² (8-hour time-weighted average).

Exposure Limit Values (ELV)

  • The ELV for HAVS is typically set at an acceleration level of 5.0 m/s² (8-hour time-weighted average).
  • The ELV for WBVS is typically set at a vibration magnitude of 1.15 m/s² (8-hour time-weighted average).

Employers are required to take action to control workers' exposure to vibration when it exceeds the EAV. Exposure levels must not exceed the ELV.

Assessment of Vibration Hazards

Risk assessment is a crucial step in identifying and managing the hazards associated with HAVS and WBVS in the workplace. By systematically evaluating the risks, employers can implement appropriate control measures to protect their workers' health and well-being.

The first step in conducting a risk assessment for HAVS and WBVS is to identify tasks and activities that expose workers to vibration. This includes:

  • Identifying the types of equipment and machinery that produce vibrations, such as power tools, heavy machinery, or vehicles.
  • Determining the duration and frequency of exposure to vibration during these tasks.
  • Identifying high-risk activities that involve prolonged or continuous exposure to vibration.

Once tasks and activities are identified, it is necessary to assess the levels of vibration to which workers are exposed. This involves:

  • Measuring vibration levels using appropriate tools and equipment, such as vibration meters or accelerometers.
  • Accurate estimations of vibration levels can be made using manufacturers information; however, this is only accurate when equipment is new.
  • Comparing measured vibration levels against established exposure limits and action values specified in the regulations.
  • Taking into account factors such as duration of exposure, frequency of vibration, and the magnitude of vibrations.

Vibration monitoring devices can be worn by workers to measure and monitor their exposure to vibration in real-time. These devices can provide feedback to workers and supervisors, allowing for adjustments to work practices as needed.

In addition to assessing overall vibration levels, it is essential to evaluate individual workers' exposure to vibration. This includes:

  • Considering factors such as the duration and frequency of exposure for each worker.
  • Identifying workers who may be particularly susceptible to HAVS or WBVS due to factors such as age, pre-existing health conditions, or previous exposure to vibration.
  • Taking into account variations in working practices and tasks performed by different workers.

The risk assessment should also consider other factors that may increase the risk of HAVS and WBVS, such as cold temperatures and awkward postures or repetitive movements.

Based on the findings of the risk assessment, employers should implement appropriate control measures to mitigate the risks of HAVS and WBVS.

Measures to Reduce Risk of HAVS & WBVS

The hierarchy of controls is a systematic approach used to identify and implement effective measures for controlling workplace hazards. It prioritises control measures based on their effectiveness in reducing or eliminating hazards. In the context of Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) and Whole-Body Vibration Syndrome (WBVS), the hierarchy of controls can be applied as follows:

Elimination or Substitution: The most effective approach is to eliminate the source of vibration altogether or to substitute the equipment for that which poses a lower risk. This could involve redesigning work processes to eliminate the need for vibrating equipment, using alternative tools or machinery that generate lower levels of vibration or purchasing equipment with built in vibration reduction mechanisms.

Engineering Controls: If elimination or substitution are not feasible, engineering controls should be implemented to reduce exposure to vibration. Vibration isolation mounts or damping materials can be installed to reduce the transmission of vibrations from machinery and equipment to the hands, arms and bodies of workers.

Suspension systems of vehicles should be designed to dampen vibrations, reduce the impact of vibrations transmitted through vehicle seats and floors and provide a smoother ride for operators. Tyres for vehicles should be selected to be suitable for the type of terrain. Vibration dampening seats can be installed on mobile plant and machinery to reduce the effect of the vibrations.

Vibrating tools and machinery should be properly maintained and serviced according to manufacturer recommendations. Regular maintenance can help minimise vibration levels and ensure equipment operates efficiently.

Administrative Controls: Administrative controls focus on modifying work practices and procedures to reduce exposure to vibration and can involve task rotation, work scheduling and training.

Task rotation should be considered to limit the duration of exposure to vibrating tools or machinery for individual workers, allowing employees to alternate between tasks with different physical demands and reducing the cumulative impact of vibration exposure.

Work schedules should be reviewed to ensure regular rest breaks to allow workers to recover from exposure to vibration. Workers should be given adequate time to recuperate between tasks that involve prolonged vibration exposure.

Workstations should be designed to minimise exposure to vibration and should be positioned away from vibrating equipment and machinery, barriers can be provided where necessary to shield workers from excessive vibrations.

Speed limits can be introduced for mobile plant and machinery on gravel and dirt roads to minimise the effects of the vibration.

Comprehensive training should be provided to employees covering the risks associated with HAVS and WBVS, along with the importance of proper tool and equipment usage and ergonomics. Employees should be educated on how to recognise early symptoms of HAVS and WBVS and the importance of reporting any signs of discomfort or injury.

Personal Protective Equipment: While engineering and administrative controls are the preferred methods for reducing vibration exposure, personal protective equipment (PPE) can provide an additional layer of protection.

Workers can be provided with anti-vibration gloves designed to absorb and dampen vibration transmitted from tools and machinery. These gloves typically feature padding or gel inserts in the palm and fingers to reduce the impact of vibration on the hands. However, these should not be relied upon and should be used in conjunction with engineering and administrative control measures.

Warm clothing can be provided to help protect vibration exposed workers from the effects of the cold. This can help to maintain effective circulation, reducing the likelihood of finger blanching and vibration white finger.

PPE should be used as a last resort and in conjunction with other control measures.

Health Surveillance for HAVS and WBVS

Health surveillance for HAVS and WBVS involves monitoring workers' health to detect early signs of these conditions and assess the effectiveness of control measures. A comprehensive health surveillance program helps employers identify workers at risk, provide appropriate interventions, and prevent the progression of HAVS and WBVS.

Baseline assessments are conducted when workers first start a job involving vibration exposure. These assessments establish a reference point for future health monitoring and help identify any pre-existing health conditions that may increase workers' susceptibility to HAVS or WBVS. Baseline assessments may include:

  • A review of workers' medical history, including any previous injuries, illnesses, or exposure to vibration.
  • A physical examination to assess workers' overall health and identify any existing conditions that may affect their ability to tolerate vibration exposure.
  • Performance of baseline tests to evaluate sensory perception, grip strength, and other relevant health indicators.

Regular health assessments are conducted at specified intervals to monitor workers' health and detect early signs of HAVS and WBVS. These assessments may include:

  • Employee reporting of symptoms or discomfort related to vibration exposure, such as tingling or numbness in the hands and arms for HAVS, or lower back pain and muscle fatigue for WBVS.
  • Physical examinations to assess workers' overall health and detect any changes since the baseline assessment.
  • Performance of functional tests to evaluate sensory perception, grip strength, and other relevant health indicators to assess the progression of HAVS and WBVS.
  • Questionnaires to assess workers' symptoms, functional limitations, and quality of life related to HAVS and WBVS.

Health surveillance data should be regularly reviewed and monitored to identify trends or patterns related to vibration exposure and health outcomes, assess the effectiveness of control measures, determine whether additional measures are needed or require to be modified and identify areas for improvement.

Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) and Whole-Body Vibration Syndrome (WBVS) present significant risks to workers exposed to vibrating tools, machinery, and vehicles in the workplace. By understanding the causes, symptoms, and potential consequences of these conditions, employers can implement proactive measures to protect the health and well-being of their workforce. Engineering controls, administrative controls, personal protective equipment (PPE), health surveillance programs, and adherence to exposure limits, are vital for effectively mitigating the risks of HAVS and WBVS.

If you need more advice on Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) and Whole-Body Vibration Syndrome (WBVS) please call 033 33 215 005 or email

About the Author
Leigh Boakes
Leigh Boakes
Leigh Boakes, Author at Wirehouse Employer Services

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