Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS)
Published 9 January 2019
The HSE believe that more than two million workers in the UK are at risk of developing hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), or more commonly known vibration white finger. HAVS is a permanent condition affecting the nerves and blood vessels of the hand. The symptoms vary but they can include pain, numbness and tingling of the hand and fingers. Everyday tasks become difficult, let alone a workers ability to carry out their trades or profession. It is typically caused by the repetitive use of hand-held vibrating power tools, such as percussive drills, hammers, grinders, sanders, etc.
As an occupational health condition, hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) is also a reportable disease in accordance with RIDDOR. It has become a focus area for the HSE, as part of its strategy to move beyond traditional safety issues and look more closely at occupational health risks, also including stress at work.
Employers are under a duty to eliminate or otherwise minimise exposure to vibration in accordance with the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005, but often fall short of this duty due to various reasons such as a lack of awareness of the condition, reluctance of workers to report symptoms, lack of a consistent health screening programme.
With the implementation of the Sentencing Guidelines for health and safety offences, recent fines arising from HSE prosecutions of cases involving HAVS have undoubtedly become more significant. The Guidelines impose a fine based upon the level of culpability and the risk of harm. The actual severity of any injury suffered does not determine the level of a fine and there does not have to be any injury for there to be a successful prosecution. The courts are invited to consider the potential seriousness and likelihood of harm that is risked. As can be seen from the following cases over the last year involving HAVS, the courts usually regard this as significant and it is also often the case that exposure is not limited to a single individual and may have persisted for a considerable period of time, often years, which can be an aggravating factor resulting in an increased fine:
- Balfour Beatty was fined £500,000 for exposing it workers to long-running exposure to HAVs between 2002 and 2011. The company's workers were regularly required to operate hand-held power tools such as hydraulic breakers and floor saws. An investigation carried out by HSE found that Balfour Beatty failed to assess the risk to its workers’ health, failed to put in place and monitor suitable risk control measures and failed to put in place a suitable system of health surveillance. The company also failed to report to the enforcing authorities a significant number of cases of employees diagnosed with HAVS as was legally required.
- Charter Housing Association Ltd was fined £100,000 after pleading guilty to breaching the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations. Affected workers were all part of a housing maintenance team and experienced significant exposure to hand arm vibration in their daily work which put them at risk of developing or exacerbating existing HAVS. The HSE investigation revealed that the company did not adequately plan its working methods, did not train or inform employees on the risks to their health, did not limit the duration and magnitude of exposure to vibration, and failed to put in place suitable health surveillance to identify HAVS problems at an early stage.
- British Airways Avionic Engineering Ltd was fined £80,000 for failing to assess the risk to workers from HAVS. Workers were exposed to vibration from use of a wet blasting cabinet and vibrating hand tools. The HSE's investigations found that it was not until late in 2013 that action was taken by the company to assess and reduce vibration risk, despite the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations having been in force since July 2005.
- Calderys UK Ltd was fined £60,000 after the Court heard that two cases of HAVS had been reported by the company but the HSE investigation found that no measures had been put in place to control workers' exposure to vibration when using pneumatic tools. It was also found there was no health surveillance put in place to identify any early signs of effects on worker health. These failings had been going on from as early as 2006.
As a responsible employer, it is important to take preventative action to tackle potential health and safety issues, and ensuring proactive and effective management of health and safety is taking place at their workplace. Specifically with regard to HAVS, such action includes:
- Identifying workers at risk from vibration;
- Risk assessing the work processes of those workers and considering the practicality of using low vibration tools;
- Training the workers accordingly and raising awareness of potential symptoms of HAVS; and
- Engagement with occupational health services and developing a system of screening workers for HAVS symptoms.