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When thinking about workplace hazards, it is natural to think about acute safety risks first, such as those posed by combustible materials; cutting, grinding and crushing machinery; poisonous and caustic chemicals; or similarly dangerous environmental factors. What is less apparent are the risks posed by seemingly innocuous conditions that can cause health problems over an extended period, such as elevated exposure to vibration.

Vibration is an unavoidable constant in many workplaces; depending on their duties, workers can be exposed to hazardous levels on a frequent-enough basis that it causes long-term injury. Problematic symptoms of vibration exposure can often go undetected initially, even at high levels of exposure, but negative effects become apparent over an extended period.

For example, Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome—commonly referred to as HAVS—is a prevalent occupational disease seen across numerous industries in which workers frequently use vibrating tools. According to information published by the U.S. Navy, as many as 2.5 million workers are exposed daily in the United States alone to HAVS from handheld power tools and hand-guided equipment used as part of their jobs. Vibration is transmitted into workers’ hands and arms from the use of this equipment, causing damaging health effects, including vascular, neurological and musculoskeletal damage, which are often permanent—but the cause is preventable. High-risk sectors include construction, carpentry, ground maintenance, engineering, shipbuilding and ship repairs, where workers operate powerful tools emitting high levels of vibration.

The ANSI S2.70-2006 standard (based on ISO 5349) dictates the use of HAVS measurement procedures for employers in the United States exposing workers to high levels of vibration. In many cases, not enough is being done to protect workers, as HAVS-related health problems still occur. Examples of negative health effects related to HAVS include:

  1. Vibration White Finger (Raynaud’s disease): This is a vascular disorder caused by restricted blood flow, causing visible blanching and coldness of the hands.
  2. Neurological Vibration (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome): This problem causes tingling and numbness in the fingers when the median nerve is entrapped in the carpal tunnel within the wrist due to external pressure or vibration, resulting in a lack of dexterity.
  3. Muscle and Soft Tissue Damage: This includes conditions such as arthritis, changes to muscles and tendonitis, which can result in loss of grip strength.
Compliance and Monitoring

Different jobs emit different levels of vibration; cutting concrete will create different vibration levels than cutting wood, for instance. Regardless of the task, employers should adhere to the ANSI S2.70 standard for safe operation that stipulates the daily exposure action value for hand-arm vibration is 2.5 m/s2 A(8). They should also comply with the exposure limit value that designates the maximum amount of vibration an employee may be exposed to on any single day. For hand-arm vibration, the daily exposure is 5 m/s2 A(8).

High-powered tools are now designed with estimated vibration levels, giving employers a useful reference point as to how long workers can safely operate equipment. That said, to truly avoid workers suffering from the harmful effects of vibration, employers should conduct regular vibration risk assessments of the workplace using specialized monitoring products, ensuring hand tools and machinery are safe to use. This enables organizations to decide what workers’ exposure is likely to be, focusing on practical steps to reduce exposure and risks. It also helps them ensure that tools and machinery continue to be safe for use after purchase, maximizing worker productivity and safety.

When manufactured, all monitoring devices should adhere to the ISO 8041 standard. If these devices show individuals or groups of workers are at risk from vibration—either constantly or on an intermittent basis—companies should consider changing work processes to avoid the use of hand tools, modifying the work to improve ergonomics, changing to better tools with lower vibration levels or training workers to ensure correct instructions are followed. Close observation of the workforce is the best way to ensure health risks are detected.

While vibration-related health risks are nothing new in many industries, vibration exposure is still not appropriately managed and monitored in all situations and the health of workers remains at risk. Employers must act to mitigate the risks and ensure the number of people currently at risk are protected—and that means taking monitoring and remedial actions more seriously.

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