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Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) – A practical guide to employers’ legal duties

Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome, or HAVS, affects the hands and forearms and is caused by prolonged exposure to vibration. HAVS is commonly caused by exposure to vibrating tools at work.

HAVS is progressive, meaning a worker’s symptoms will become more severe as the level or duration of exposure to vibration increases. Symptoms will also worsen if an affected worker continues to use vibrating tools after HAVS symptoms begin to appear.

Employers owe a duty of care to their workforce to take all reasonable steps to manage HAVS-related risks.

How is HAVS caused?

Although there is a great deal of evidence that prolonged exposure to vibration causes HAVS, the exact mechanism that translates vibration into HAVS symptoms is unclear. It is suspected that vibration damages small nerves and blood vessels in the fingers. A range of other medical issues are also associated with HAVS, including bone damage, bone cysts and osteoarthritis.

HAVS symptoms include:

  • Pins and needles in the fingers, hands and forearms
  • Numbness and pain
  • Loss of the sense of touch in the fingers
  • Weaker finger, hand and grip strength

HAVS symptoms tend to worsen over time, even once the sufferer stops using vibrating tools entirely, and symptoms are particularly pronounced and painful in cold weather. HAVS symptoms can affect someone’s ability to work and their daily life.

HAVS is also associated with a range of similar conditions, including Vibration White Finger (VWF) and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS).

Who could be affected by HAVS?

Infrequent use of tools with only a small amount of vibrating force is unlikely to cause HAVS symptoms. However, anyone who uses vibrating tools in the course of their work, for any length of time, should be included in a risk assessment.

Workers that regularly use jackhammers, hammer drills and road breakers are most at risk, but most handheld power tools carry some vibration risk. Stationary tools, including lathes, drills and saws, and larger motorised equipment like lawnmowers also carry risk.

Employers must identify workers who are at particular risk of HAVS and must take all reasonable steps to reduce this risk. Workers should also be assessed on an individual basis; vibrating tools pose a much greater risk to a worker with a long history of exposure to vibration at work than someone who has never used power tools before. 

HAVS-related legislation

The key legislation concerning HAVS risk is the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005. In concert with other more general legislation, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, the Regulations require employers to take reasonable steps to protect workers from the risk of harm caused by vibrating tools, and to carry out regular assessments to ensure compliance.

In most cases, it is not possible to totally remove the risk of HAVS if using power tools is a core part of a worker’s job. The law makes it clear that necessary exposure must be carefully monitored and reduced wherever possible.

Specifically, employers must take action at fixed levels of exposure. There are two limits that must be monitored:

  • the exposure action value (EAV), and
  • the exposure limit value (ELV).

These are measured with reference to a worker’s average exposure over an eight-hour workday, called the A(8) value.

Ratings for different pieces of vibrating equipment are usually published by manufacturers, although it is not always clear how to translate these ratings into A(8) values.

The intensity of vibration is measured in terms of metres per second squared (m/s2):

  • The EAV is the level at which an employer must take action to reduce exposure, and is currently set at 2.5m/s2 .
  • The ELV is 5m/s2 and represents the absolute average daily limit of vibration exposure that must not be exceeded.

Could your company be sued?

Unlike some health conditions, such as hearing loss or back pain, HAVS can be directly traced to a worker’s employment, specifically the use of power tools.

If a current or former worker develops HAVS symptoms, they may have grounds to pursue a claim for compensation.

Chris Salmon, Director of Quittance, said

“If you are contacted by an affected worker or their solicitor about a claim, you should contact your insurer and seek legal advice as soon as possible. You will be required to confirm receipt of the claim notification, but otherwise you should refrain from communicating with the employee without the advice of your solicitor or employers’ liability insurance provider.”

“That said, it is a good idea to take a positive and compassionate approach. HAVS can be a debilitating condition, and other workers may have questions or concerns following a claim. It is important to address these issues, and to ensure that all health and safety measures in place are suitable, and that they are actually followed in practice.”

In some job roles and some industries, a degree of HAVS risk is unavoidable. When considering whether your company is liable, the following could be taken into account:

  • What measures were in place to manage vibration risk?
  • Were regular assessments carried out?
  • Did the employee have a history of using vibrating tools, and were extra precautions taken to manage this risk?

Previous employers and split liability

If a member of your workforce, or an ex-employee, is diagnosed with a condition caused by exposure to vibration, liability for damages may be shared, or ‘spilt’, with other employers.

How liability is split will vary depending on the degree to which each employer may have contributed to the worker’s condition.

If, for example, a worker has used vibrating tools on a daily basis in the same role for 20 years, and they worked at Company A for 10 years and Company B for 10 years, the liability could be split 50/50.

Split liability can be complex, however. If one employer took precautions against vibration risk, mandating regular breaks etc, and the other did not, the liability would be weighted against the more ‘negligent’ employer.

HAVS and COVID restrictions

Government guidelines stated early on in the pandemic that construction work and similar projects could continue under lockdown, provided that safety precautions were observed.

Although there is no obvious conflict between HAVS best practice and the COVID-secure guidelines, social distancing and reduced staffing levels could inadvertently increase HAVS-related risks.

Having fewer staff on shift could put workers under pressure to continue to use vibrating tools for longer than HSE recommendations permit. COVID restrictions may also make it harder to carry out regular assessments and monitor compliance with health and safety rules.

More generally, employees should be reminded that COVID guidelines do not automatically override existing health and safety rules. There is a risk that workers, in an effort to comply with COVID rules, end up placing themselves in a greater, more immediate risk of harm.

Next steps

As lockdown restrictions ease and a return to normal seems more likely every day, now may be a good time to review your company’s processes. If you expect to be hiring more staff in the near future (or have staff returning from furlough) you should ensure that health and safety protocols are up-to-date and fit for purpose.

With respect to HAVS, VWF, Carpal Tunnel and similar conditions, you should ensure that HSE guidelines regarding breaks and A(8) values are actually observed in practice, and that staff understand the causes of HAVS and the risks.

Vibration risk can be reduced using a range of methods, including properly maintaining equipment, taking regular breaks, rotating tasks, and taking additional precautions in adverse weather conditions. Training should also be provided to ensure employees use tools correctly. 

For new and returning staff with a history of exposure to vibration at work, it’s particularly important that guidelines are observed and, where appropriate, additional precautions are taken to manage the higher level of risk.

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Chris Salmon – Author Bio

Chris Salmon is a co-founder and Director of Quittance Legal Services.

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