The aim of this article is to provide guidance on workplace vibration including what the signs and symptoms are when exposed to vibration and how employers and employees can protect themselves from the risks from vibration.
To start with, vibration is split into two areas, hand-arm vibration and whole-body vibration. Our article will firstly look at hand-arm vibration then followed by whole body vibration.
What is Workplace Vibration & Hand-Arm Vibration
Hand-arm vibration is caused by the use of work-equipment and work processes which transmit vibration into the workers’ hands and arms, and these can include the use of hand-held power tools, hand-guided equipment and when holding onto a piece of material which is being processed by machinery.
In 2019, the HSE reported that there were “205 new cases of hand-arm vibration syndrome in Great Britain.” However, this figure is only the tip of the iceberg as the number will be much higher than the number recorded for the following reasons as identified by the HSE:
- “Cases arising from circumstances other than those covered by the terms of the prescription.
- Individuals being unaware of the possible occupational origin of their disease.
- A lack of knowledge regarding the availability of compensation.
- The scheme not including self-employed workers.”
Hand-arm vibration is caused by prolonged exposure to vibration which leads to the small nerves and blood vessels becoming damaged which can lead to the reduction in their function. Hand-arm vibration can be easily avoided if measures are taken. A person exposed to hand-arm vibration can lead to them developing permanent health effects known as hand-arm vibration syndrome and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Regular exposure to hand-arm vibration syndrome can give rise to permanent and debilitating injuries which include:
- Tingling and numbness in the fingers. As a result of the tingling and numbness this makes it difficult to complete everyday tasks and fine work, examples include fastening buttons.
- Loss of strength to the hand.
- Fingers going white then turning red and accompanied by pain when recovering.
- Pain in the wrists. (Carpal tunnel syndrome).
- Loss of sense of temperature in the fingers.
- Damage to muscles and joints.
- Damage to bones.
- Vibration white finger which can spread to other fingers which can make it very debilitating especially when the individual is not able to pick up objects.
Hand arm vibration syndrome can affect people in a varying amount of degrees. With continued exposure to vibration the symptoms may have longer lasting effects which can lead to it becoming permanent. Some symptoms may come and go, however, with continued use of vibrating equipment, the symptoms can become more prevalent and eventually become permanent. Hand arm vibration syndrome is preventable with the right control measures in place.
Some people are more susceptible to hand-arm vibration which include pregnant workers, workers who have diseases/illnesses that affect their blood circulation, smokers and also workers who have diseases/illnesses of the hands, arms and wrist.
Whole-body vibration is caused by vibration and/ or the shock being transmitted through either sitting or standing when on a vehicle or a machine and the exposure to the vibration affects the person’s entire body. Whole-body vibration can be offered as a health benefit if used in small doses, however, research is lacking within this area. Nevertheless, constant exposure to whole-body vibration and shocks can lead to back problems, cardiovascular disease, headaches, dizziness, digestive problems, fatigue, and even the potential for cancer. It is very difficult to link these injuries/illnesses to whole-body vibration as they can be caused by other hazards within the workplace such as manual handling. However, employers still have a legal duty under the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 to manage the risk from whole-body vibration.
Employees who drive road vehicles for a living, on our UK road network, are unlikely to fall within the requirements for whole-body vibration as they are not going to experience high levels of whole-body vibration. Where the regulations will apply is for those who operate off-road machinery, agricultural machinery such as tractors. In some cases, if vehicles are driven over poor road surfaces or off-road then they could be more susceptible to whole-body vibration and likewise, the same with lift trucks if they are used on an uneven yard.
Some workers should avoid being exposed to whole-body vibration and this includes pregnant workers, older workers, those with existing back problems and young people.
Workplace Vibration & Risk Assessments
As an employer, you have a legal duty to manage the risks from vibration. One of those duties is to firstly carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and as part of the risk assessment process the risk assessment should identify the measures that need to be taken in order to meet the requirements of the Regulations. When employers are to conduct the risk assessment, they are to assess the daily exposure to vibration.
The exposure action value is a daily figure in which the employee will hit first when working with vibrating equipment, this figure does not mean you cannot exceed it what it means is soon as the vibration levels exceed this value then action must be taken and controls implemented.
The daily exposure action value for hand-arm vibration is 2.5m/s2 A(8). Then, after this figure has been hit, there is a limit which must not be exceeded and this is known as the exposure limit value. This figure is the amount of vibration an employee can be exposed to on any single day but must not be exceeded.
The daily exposure limit value for hand-arm vibration is 5m/s2 A(8).
When working out the values, remember it is averaged out over 8-hours.
Your daily exposure to vibration is measured by a formula known as an A(8) value. This is the average (A) exposure over an eight-hour (8) day and takes into account the magnitude of the vibration and how long you are exposed to it. The rate of vibration of a tool or piece of machinery is measured in metres (m) per second (s) – its movement per second.
Vibration Exposure Levels
To help with working out the vibration exposure values, the HSE has produced a calculator to assist with the calculation of hand-arm vibration.
To begin assessing vibration exposure and working out the values. You need to identify all your tools and processes within your organisation that involve regular exposure to vibration. Even if a tool is used only once in a while, the length of time the employee is using the tool could lead to the employee exceeding the exposure action value.
Then once you have the list compiled, the next stage is to locate the vibration information for that piece of equipment/vehicle from the manufacturer’s instructions. If you are unsure of the vibration levels, contact the manufacturer for their guidance.
Workplace Vibration & Preventative Measures
To help prevent the onset of hand-arm vibration syndrome make a list of all those employees who could be exposed to vibration. Employers have a legal duty to consult with their workforce so ask your employees how long their hands are in contact with the vibration source and if any of them have experienced any signs or symptoms of hand-arm vibration syndrome. If employees are responding yes, then action must be taken to prevent permanent damage occurring and health surveillance put into place for those employees who have identified symptoms.
During the consultation process, you should ask your employees whether they have any concerns or problems associated with the use of the work equipment such as weight, difficulty in holding the equipment, awkwardness, posture.
Then based upon this information you can make an assessment and estimate the levels of exposure and group the activities by level of risk such as high, medium and low. For example, high risk (above the ELV) and medium risk (above the EAV).
Employers Safety Responsabilities
As an employer you have a legal duty to implement control measures to reduce employees from being exposed to workplace vibration and leading to the development of hand-arm vibration syndrome or back pain associated with whole-body vibration.
Employees should be instructed to always carry out a visual inspection of the equipment or vehicle’s condition and any defects or damage is to be immediately reported to their Manager.
Employers can also consider the following when implementing control measures:
- Limit the duration spent on using a piece of equipment or driving a vehicle
- Replacing tools where required
- Keeping equipment and vehicles maintained
- Job rotation and breaks
- Assess the work methods to establish if the process can be carried out differently without having to expose employees to vibration
Once you have completed the risk assessment, it should be implemented and monitored to check that the controls identified are working. Liaise with your workforce to see how they are feeling, if they have any further comments to make and finally check the results of health surveillance. All of this will determine if the measures taken are working.
Like with any other health and safety documentation, employers must share the findings of the risk assessment with the employees and to demonstrate that this information has been communicated is to obtain documented evidence from your employees in the form of signatures to say that they have read and understood the risk assessment. By having this documented evidence will prove that this information has been communicated with your employees.
To conclude, employees can be exposed to vibration during their working role dependent on the task undertaken. The amount of vibration an employee is exposed to can vary dependent on the factors involved. As an employer by identifying the vibration risks, the type of equipment and/or machinery involved you can help mitigate against the effects of an employee suffering from an illness as a result of exposure to vibration and in return enables a happy and healthy workforce with reduced absenteeism.
Speak to our Health and Safety Consultancy team today for support and guidance managing workplace vibration issues in your business.