Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome
A disease affecting the nerves, blood vessels, muscles and joints of the hand, wrist and arm, Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome, is beginning to attract attention both in the United States and abroad. On July 6, the British Parliament passed “The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005,” placing limits on the amount of time workers can be exposed to vibrating tools on a daily basis. While such legislation has yet to hit this side of the ocean, concern regarding the disease is on the rise. In March, the Superior Court for the State of Washington, King County, issued a notice of class action alerting all Washington residents about a pending class action suit against Chicago Pneumatic Tool Co. of Chicago. According to court papers, the class consists of “all Washington residents who used the Chicago Pneumatic Pneu-nife CP-838 to remove auto glass while on the job, who as of March 14, 2005, suffer numbness, tingling, pain or discoloration of the fingers upon exposure to cold or wet, or who have received a diagnosis of Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome, Vibration White Finger or Secondary Raynaud’s Syndrome from a physician.”
Filed by Eric Boos and James Rasmussen, auto glass technicians in Olympia and Seattle, the suit claims the CP-838 is “dangerously defective” and holds the supplier liable for vibration injuries allegedly caused by the tool. The suit further claims Chicago Pneumatic acted negligently in designing, manufacturing and distributing the tool without adequate product warnings and instructions.
According to the full notice of class action, Chicago Pneumatic Tool Co. has denied the plaintiffs’ claim, contending the tool is safe as designed and was not the cause of any injuries.
What is HAVS?
Daily exposure to hand-arm vibration by those who use vibrating tools powered by compressed air, gasoline or electricity can cause HAVS, according to Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers Inc. of Canada. When left untreated, HAVS can result in permanent tingling and numbness in the fingers, loss of grip strength and painful spasms, as described by Britain’s Health and Safety Executive. Symptoms include bluish discoloration of the skin on fingers and hands; whitening of fingertips when exposed to cold or damp; numbness, with or without tingling; reduced sense of touch and pain; decreased grip strength; and the inability to sustain muscle power.
According to the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers Inc., “Depending on conditions of exposure, 6 to 100 percent of workers can suffer HAVS after using vibrating power tools. On average, about 46 percent get HAVS symptoms.”
Who’s at risk and how can it be prevented?
Technicians who use vibrating tools on a daily basis are at risk of developing HAVS. Awkward positions further contribute to the problem. Most auto glass technicians find themselves in difficult positions when cutting out windshields, putting added stress on the arms and wrists and preventing them from holding the tool at the proper angle.
To reduce the risk of developing HAVS, rely on hand tools such as cold knives whenever possible, advises the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in its 1998 Health Hazard Evaluation Report No. 99-0025. However, that’s not to say technicians cannot use power tools. As Britain’s Health and Safety Executive points out in its Hand-Arm Vibration: Advice for Employees brochure, if you use power tools:
• Ask to use suitable low-vibration tools
• Always use the right tool for each job so you can do the job more quickly and reduce exposure to hand-arm vibration
• Check tools before using to make sure they have been properly maintained and repaired
• Make sure cutting tools are kept sharp so that they stay efficient
• Reduce the amount of time you use a tool consistently by doing other jobs in between
• Avoid gripping or forcing a tool
• Store tools so that they do not have cold handles when used next
• Encourage good blood circulation by keeping warm and dry, giving up or quitting smoking and massaging and exercising fingers during work breaks.
The employer’s responsibility
If you use power cutout tools frequently, ask your employer for low-vibration tools, and ask the manufacturer about your tool’s vibration level. “Vibration magnitude is usually described in terms of acceleration,” explains the British HSE. “During vibration, a point will accelerate and decelerate rapidly as it moves one way and then back again. Acceleration can be measured with an accelerometer. The unit of measurement is meters per second, m/s.”
Armed with this data, your employer can compare the different vibration levels of various tools on the market, assess risk to employees and decide if he or she should limit the time employees spend on certain tasks on a daily basis.
The British HSE also recommends employers take the following steps:
• Work out daily time limits to do jobs and keep risks low
• Modify workstations if possible to ensure good ergonomic tool use
• Discuss and agree with supervisors and users how the tool is to be used safely, including maximum daily use
• Provide instructions to supervisors and users
• Provide training on safe use
• Limit use to trained operators only
• Set up maintenance and replacement programs for tools and blades
• Monitor and review these actions regularly.
Perhaps most importantly, the HSE offers the following advice: “Help your employer to stop HAVS and carpal tunnel syndrome before they become a problem for you.”
• Tingling and numbness in the fingers, sometimes causing sleep disturbance
• Not being able to feel with your fingers
• Loss of strength in your hands; you may be less able to pick up or hold heavy objects
• In cold or wet weather, the tips of your fingers became white, then red, followed by a period of painful recovery
Source: Hand-Arm Vibration: Advice for Employees, Health and Safety Executive of Britain, www.hse.gov.uk/vibration