“It felt like my hands were burning. I wondered if I had somehow got acid on them.”
This is how one worker remembers the first time they felt the effects of Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS), a condition caused by frequent use of vibrating power tools which damages nerves and circulation. HAVS – which encompasses Vibration White Finger and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – isn’t just painful, it can reduce muscle strength, make fine tasks difficult and is likely to worsen in damp or cold conditions.
Construction is one of the sectors where HAVS strikes often. Statistics are hard to come by as the only figures are those recorded by the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IDB) compensation scheme which only picks up a proportion of sufferers1. The HSE believes that around 2 million people are at risk of developing HAVS.
Recent HSE prosecutions demonstrate that HAVS is still a problem today, despite growing awareness. In December 2020, a housing association was fined £80,000 after four workers, who had been carrying out ground maintenance and general construction, developed HAVS. In 2018, a utilities contractor was fined £500,000 for failing to protect its workers and monitor their exposure to vibration adequately over nearly a decade.
It isn’t just contractors who are responsible for the health of workers. Those designing and overseeing works must take responsibility too, according to the Construction Design & Management (CDM) Regulations 2015. Proactive road owners and contractors are looking at how they can rethink processes to eliminate or vastly reduce the risks that exposure to vibration cause.
What does the law say?
The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 says that employers should be doing all they can to eliminate the risk of workers being hit by HAVS. And where risks are high, they should be applying control measures, providing training and conducting health surveillance.
The regulations don’t say that employers should be monitoring continuously, even for high-risk activities. They do say that risk assessment should be done and that might include monitoring for a set period of time to work out what the likely exposure levels are2.
There is a caveat here, however. A company’s insurer may require that an organisation monitors continuously, particularly if there have been prosecutions or claims against them linked to HAVS in the past. There are different ways to do this and its worth looking at HSE guidance on the subject before working out which is best for your operation.
What are people doing?
The HSE has set an exposure action value (EAV) of 2.5 m/s2 assuming an eight-hour day, above which action must be taken, and an exposure limit value (ELV) of 5 m/s2 assuming an eight-hour day. By plugging in the vibration magnitude of the tool or equipment and the time spent operating it into the HSE’s hand-arm vibration exposure calculator (as Excel spreadsheet), employers can look at exposures for each eight-hour shift3.
There’s also the HSE’s ‘ready reckoner’ table4 which expresses exposures as ‘points’ and can quickly show how many hours someone could operate equipment before being over the safe limit, the ELV. For instance, the average vibration magnitude of a hand-held roadbreakers is 12m/s2, according to the HSE. The ready reckoner tells us that if someone were to operator one of these for a total of 1.5 hours in an 8-hour shift, they would already be in the red as far as health risks were concerned.
Going the extra mile
Considering the example, above, the lowest risk option for pothole repairs would be to remove the need for a roadbreaker altogether – which is what the Thermal Road Repairs (TRR) system does. Instead of breaking out and removing the area around a pothole and defect, TRR uses an infrared heater to heat up the remaining material in the pothole or crack and the material around it. Once soft it can be mixed with a small amount of new material and compacted.
TRR does require the use of a roller, which is vibrating equipment. However, less area requires compaction under this method and hence vibration exposure is vastly reduced, nowhere near the action level (EAV), let-alone the limit (ELV).
This is an important point for some of our customers. Although most decided to switch to the TRR method due to the low carbon footprint and greater efficiency of the system, for others the reduction in HAVS risk is even more pertinent.
Thermal Road Repairs is a green technology company which supplies systems to improve the quality, cost and time efficiency of road repairs and paving – at a far lower environmental cost than traditional methods. We invest significantly in R&D, to create new technologies and to continuously improve our existing ones.
High output. Low emission. Permanent solution.
Sources/ more information:
HSE advice on vibration exposure monitoring
HSE’s hand-arm vibration exposure calculator
HAVS ready reckoner