What Is HAVS and How Does It Affect People?

Hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) is a condition caused by repeated use of a vibrating machine that is in some way held while in operation. HAVS is caused by the vibrations of machinery causing damage to nerves and blood vessels in the hand. The syndrome, which has been previously known as vibration white finger (VWF), increases in severity over time from numbness or lack of feeling in the fingertips to a loss of hand dexterity. In extreme cases, HAVS has been known to cause the loss of fingers.

HAVS develops into its most serious form by a worker's extended use of vibrating machinery over months and years. For this reason, limits have been put in place since 2005 regarding the time and level of vibration that a worker can be exposed to via The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations under the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974.

Under this regulation, an employer is responsible for identifying and managing any potential causes of injury from vibrating machinery. This includes measures to both reduce vibration and to provide training and information regarding HAVS to affected employees. Identifying whether or not a particular employee may be susceptible to the syndrome requires the use of HSE certified guidelines.

Primarily, acceleration amplitude and duration are the main concerns. Duration is measured in so-called trigger time (i.e. the amount of time an employee holds onto a tool) while the amplitude is measured in metres per second via an accelerometer. Each tool is given an Exposure Action Value (EAV) which determines a safe amount of time that an individual may use it. If a tool is to be used beyond this time, measures to limit vibration exposure must be undertaken by employers.

This method of measurement means that extended use of a slightly vibrating tool may be more damaging than light use of a heavily vibrating tool. Because of this and a general public ignorance of the syndrome, employers must be wary of risk factors and employee complaints. Warning factors to look out for include employees complaining of numbness in hands or fingers after the use of vibrating tools, regular operation of hammer action or rotary tools and heavy industry environments such as construction or shipbuilding operations. Other potentially at risk industries include mining, vehicle manufacture, forest maintenance, and road repair among others, although any job involving vibrating machinery should be investigated.

As HAVS has been only relatively recently become an issue with the rise of heavy industrial jobs in the early 20th century, public recognition is still low. Compensation for those most seriously affected has become common, starting in 1997 when the UK government first awarded payments to victims of HAVS. Since then, funds have been set up for additional payments to coal miners which exceeded £100 million by 2004. Due to this potential for affecting employee health and safety alongside the possibility of future litigation, it is in the best interest of all business owners with roles that include vibrating machinery to spread awareness and take preventive measures.