Bad vibrations? A short guide to hand-arm vibrations

HAVS Carpal tunnel syndromeIf you work with power tools of any variety, the chances are you have experienced some degree of hand-arm vibrations. While limited exposure to these vibrations is unlikely to cause any lasting damage, over exposure can lead to hand-arm syndrome (HAVS) or carpal tunnel syndrome.

With the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimating that 2 million people are at risk of developing HAVS, we have put together this short guide to explore some of the issues involved and look at ways these conditions can be prevented.

What is HAVS?

Hand-arm vibration syndrome (which is sometimes called vibration white finger or dead finger) is a painful condition that damages the nerves, blood vessels, muscles and joints of the hands, wrists and arms. People who work regularly with hand-held or hand-guided power tools for more than a few hours each day can be at risk of developing the condition, which is permanent and highly debilitating. Early symptoms to look out for include:

  • Tingling and numbness in the fingers
  • Loss of feeling in the fingers
  • Loss of strength in your hands
  • In the cold and wet, the tips of your fingers going white, then red and painful.

If you continue to use high-vibration tools these symptoms may get worse, for example:

  • Permanent numbness in hands leading to a complete loss of feeling
  • Inability to pick up small objects such as screw or nails
  • The vibration white finger could happen more frequently and affect more of your fingers

For a more detailed breakdown of symptoms, the HSE have produced an employee guide to hand-arm vibration.

Who is at risk of developing HAVS?

You are at risk if you regularly use hand-held or hand-guided power tools and machines such as:

  • Concrete breakers, concrete pokers;
  • Sanders, grinders, disc cutters;
  • Hammer drills;
  • Chipping hammers;
  • Chainsaws, brush cutters, hedge trimmers,
  • Powered mowers;
  • Scabblers or needle guns.

You are particularly at risk if you regularly operate:

  • Hammer action tools for more than about 15 minutes per day; or
  • Some rotary and other action tools for more than about one hour per day.

Remember – once the damage has been done it is permanent and irreversible.


How can I reduce the risks?

It is your employer’s responsibility to protect you against HAVS and carpal tunnel syndrome, but you should help by asking your employer if your job could be done in a different way without using vibrating tools and machines. If this cannot happen then:

  • Ask to use suitable low-vibration tools.
  • Check tools before using them to make sure they have been properly maintained and repaired to avoid increased vibration caused by faults or general wear.
  • Reduce the amount of time you use a tool in one go, by doing other jobs in between.
  • Avoid gripping or forcing a tool or workpiece more than you have to.
  • Store tools so that they do not have very cold handles when next used.
  • Keep warm and dry to encourage good blood circulation.

You should also learn to recognise the early signs and symptoms of HAVS and report any symptoms to your employer or the person who does your health checks.

What does the law say about HAVS?

The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 were introduced to better protect workers from vibration at work and came into force in July 2005. By law, employers must assess and identify measures to eliminate or reduce risks from exposure to hand-arm vibration so that you can protect their employees from risks to their health.

Hand-arm vibrations should be considered as part of a risk assessment (which again, is a legal obligation) to help control and limit exposure. Where required, employers must ensure that:

  • Control measures to reduce vibration are properly applied; and
  • Information, training and health surveillance is provided.

Remember: You need to review what you are doing if anything changes that may affect exposures to vibration where you work.

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