Is the White Finger pointing at you?

Derek Vaughan, Managing Director of the UK Trades Confederation (UKTC) gives employers insight into the new proposed health and safety regulation to control vibration at work.

Around 3,000 new claims are made each year for Industrial Injury Disability Benefit and huge sums of compensation are paid out, the latest being an estimated £3 billion for 165,000 ex-miners. Therefore it is hardly a surprise to the trade industry that there is a new proposed health and safety legislation set to come into force in July 2005 to control vibration at work.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which is responsible for the regulation of almost all the risks to health and safety arising from work activity in Britain, there are an estimated 300,000 people with advanced stages of Vibration White Finger (VWF). VWF is the most common form of Hand-Arm-Vibration (HAV) syndrome and reason to claim occupational ill health. The industries that are most vulnerable to these claims are where workers are regularly exposed to high levels of vibration from hand-held or hand guided power tools and the holding of materials that vibrate when fed into machines.

The transmission of vibration into the hand and arms can cause permanent injury to workers, sometimes leaving them unable to continue working because of loss of grip strength. The common symptoms of HAV are pins and needles, severe pain to the fingers and wrist and also numbness to the fingers which may cause a person to lose their sense of touch. VWF syndrome is caused by the intermittent lack of blood supply to the fingers that can be triggered by the constant use of vibrating hand machinery.

Vibration hand tools and equipment are so widely used within a number of industries including construction, engineering and forestry that a huge amount of awareness of the new legislation needs to be created. The new health and safety act will require employers to take action to prevent the effects of HAV and the long term development of VWF caused by the exposure to high levels of hand-arm vibrations. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to employers is how to regulate exposure to vibration as applications may differ according to the work carried out. Research that is conducted in laboratory conditions may not be an accurate measure of vibration for a number of reasons. For example, tools vary according to their condition and age, the person operating the tool may not have been trained accordingly or may find it difficult to monitor exact usage time to meet recommended exposure limits, and base material and direction of use also influence vibration levels.

Hilti has taken all these considerations into account by providing solutions based on real life data and the variations that may occur. Product selectors have been produced to match the correct machinery and consumables to the task whilst accurately identifying the amount of work that can be carried out safely before the legal exposure is reached.

A colour coding system for labelling tools according to vibration levels has also been devised by the Hire Association Europe (HAE) and the Construction Confederation. The traffic light system designates a maximum daily use according to the vibration level measured in m/s (metres per second square). For example less than 5 m/s means the worker can use that tool for eight hours in the day without exceeding the exposure limit. However, this doesn’t take into account other factors that influence vibration levels.

Employers are advised to speak to the manufactures of the equipment they are using to find out relevant information like Hilti’s product selector and to inquire if there are training manuals or courses that employees can undertake to reduce HAV risks. Also, seeking alternative ways of working by using a number of anti – vibration mounts and supports reduce hand-arm vibration and can separate workers from the vibration source.

Tools that have not been regularly serviced or maintained worsen vibration if they are worn or the balance of the rotating parts is slightly off, so it is imperative to ensure regular servicing and maintenance of tools.

Paul Langford Marketing Director of Hilti explains: “Tool vibration and performance may vary over the age of the tool and as the tool parts wear out. To monitor the performance Hilti are introducing an electronic digital counter with an indicator light that comes on when the tool needs a service.

“After adequate warning the tool will then stop working as it is due for a service. Hilti has also introduced ‘wear mark’s to indicate when a drill bit is worn beyond safe practical use”.

Ensuring every precaution is taken by providing and monitoring the usage of tools is obviously the main priority for employers. However, employers will need to be extra vigilant in co-ordinating job rotation and giving employees adequate breaks. Providing employees with training may also be necessary to ensure the correct use of equipment and continuous awareness about the risks of HAV is communicated to employees.

HSE also advises that as a precautionary measure, employees should also have a medical pre-employment assessment to see if they have any symptoms of HAV. This might also be necessary for existing employees to detect any developing stages that may later result in VWF if not monitored by regular health checks.

Controlling vibration at work is going to be a difficult task for employers as constant surveillance and careful monitoring is going to be needed. The UK Trades Confederation is aware of this and will provide its members with all the relevant information needed to comply with the proposed legislation.

Although the new health and safely law is predicted to come in this July 2005, employers are encouraged to start contacting their tool suppliers now to see what steps they are taking.