Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) – What is it and who is at risk of developing it?

There are many threats to worker’s health, but unlike noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) for example, where a worker may get ringing in their ears as an early sign of overexposure to noise, it can be far more difficult for someone to spot the signs of HAVS without adequate awareness, training and regular surveillance to look for symptoms.

“Companies must manage the risks associated with vibrating tools. Hand arm vibration can be a significant health risk wherever powered hand tools are used for significant lengths of time.”

What is HAVS?

According to Medicinenet.com HAVS is defined as: “a painful and potentially disabling condition of the fingers, hands, and arms due to vibration.” and where this a good overview, not all people suffering from HAVS will present the same symptoms. You may hear it referred to as ‘vibration white finger,’ a ‘dead finger,’ or a ‘dead hand’, these are all terms for the same thing.

What are the symptoms and how do they present?

The symptoms are:

  • Numbness and tingling in the fingers, as well as a reduced sense of touch and temperature, caused by nerve damage in the hand. Small objects can be difficult to feel and work with as a result of this damage.
  • Recurring attacks in which blood circulation is disrupted in the fingertips and areas of the fingers become white (blanched).
  • During these attacks, the fingers become numb. The fingers are usually throbbing, red, and painful when blood circulation returns to normal, whether on its own or after rewarming.
  • Blood circulation may be permanently inhibited in the advanced stages of the disease.

Individual employees with HAVS may not experience the full spectrum of symptoms; for example, nerve damage symptoms may exist without blood circulation issues, and vice versa.

The effects of HAVS on blood circulation are first visible in the tips of the affected fingers, with changes extending up the finger as exposure to vibration continues. It’s possible that the thumb will be affected as well.

Despite the fact that vibration is responsible for the condition, it is not responsible for the attacks. Exposure to cold, such as being outside early on a chilly winter morning, or localised/general body chilling in otherwise warm conditions, are the dominant contributors of these symptoms.

It is not only HAVS that can be caused by vibration exposure. It can also induce carpal tunnel syndrome, a hand and arm illness that causes tingling, numbness, discomfort, and weakening in areas of the hand.

“HAVS is preventable, but once the damage is done it is permanent. Damage from HAVS can include the inability to do fine work and cold can trigger painful finger blanching attacks. Health surveillance is vital to detect and respond to early signs of damage.”

Who is at risk from developing HAVS?

Anyone regularly working with vibrating tools or work pieces that vibrate while being processed by powered machinery can be at serious risk from developing HAVS.

These can be found in a variety of industries, for example:

  • Road and railway construction and maintenance
  • Construction
  • Estate administration (e.g. maintenance of grounds, parks, water courses, road and rail side verges
  • Forestry
  • Foundries
  • Heavy-duty construction
  • Concrete products manufacturing
  • Quarries and mines
  • Manufacturing and repairing automobiles
  • Utility services (eg water, gas, electricity, telecommunications)
  • Shipbuilding

The following tools are also known to be leading causes of vibration related disease:

  • Concrete breakers, concrete pokers
  • Sanders, grinders, disc cutters
  • Hammer drills
  • Chipping hammers
  • Chainsaws, brush cutters, hedge trimmers
  • Powered mowers
  • Scabblers or needle guns
  • Polishers

The only questions you should ask yourself if you are unsure if your employees could be at risk are:

“Do they use hammer action tools for more than about 15 minutes per day?”


“Do they use rotary and other action tools for more than about one hour per day?”

If you answer yes to either of these, then you must take action to determine the actual levels to which they are exposed to on a regular shift.

How can I measure the vibration my staff are exposed to?

To begin with, you’re going to need an in-depth knowledge of the subject. If a claim is made against you, or if you are prosecuted, the courts will want to see evidence of who has, and how you have been, measuring your employee’s vibration exposure levels. If it is found that the person doing it is not deemed “competent” in doing so, then you run a serious risk of amassing a hefty fine. We have seen these recently in excess of £500,000.  Our prediction is that, given the serious nature of HAVS on individuals, enforcement action will almost certainly follow where it can be demonstrated that an organisation failed to adequately control exposure within the Exposure Limit Value and/or take appropriate action when the Exposure Action Value was reached. To successfully defend any prosecution, an employer will have to positively demonstrate that it reduced exposure and risk to the lowest level reasonably practicable.

If you want to gain competency in the subject of vibration at work, the best way to do it is through a Castle Training Academy Competent Person Course, which are taught by our tutors, who are experts in the field of HAVS and Whole-Body vibration.

If you are already competent, then you will need to find out the level of vibration employees are exposed to. You can do this by finding data that is representative of your tasks or, to be more relevant, you can measure the amplitude of vibration directly on your tools. For hand-arm vibration you can use a tool like the VEXO-H or VibA(8), for whole-body vibration the VibA(8) can include a whole-body MEMS seat pad to do this. You can buy or hire these from www.castleshop.co.uk and www.castlegroup.co.uk/rent/ respectively.

Once you have collected your data, you will need to work out your operator’s exposure time and then their exposure level, which can then be compared with the Exposure Action Value (EAV) and Exposure Limit Value (ELV) Values. If your employees are:

  • likely to be regularly exposed above the action value of 2.5 m/s2 A(8), then
  • are predicted to be exposed above the action level on occasion, and the risk assessment determines that the frequency and severity of exposure constitute a health hazard;
  • already diagnosed with having HAVS (even if under the action limits)

Then you will need a health surveillance program in place, and a responsible person to run it, to monitor for symptoms as HAVS. Again, you can learn all about what is involved in creating a tailored health surveillance program on our vibration courses.

“Companies must manage the risks associated with vibrating tools. Hand arm vibration can be a significant health risk wherever powered hand tools are used for significant lengths of time.”

What else can I do to manage the risk of HAVS in my workplace?

Developing a policy for controlling vibration risks that outlines how the organisation would approach identifying and managing this risk, as well as how persons with HAVS will be supported;

Conducting a risk assessment to determine whether work activities and items of equipment are hazardous.

This should involve determining how long workers use specific instruments on a typical day and whether daily vibration exposure is expected to reach or exceed the Regulations’ Exposure Action Value;

Sharing the risk assessment’s conclusions with affected employees and their representatives;

Identifying reasonable, feasible steps to avoid or limit vibration exposure to as low a level as is reasonably possible, such as:

  • Examining whether alternative working practises can be utilised to limit or eliminate exposure;
  • Planning and managing work, including, when necessary, delegating duties to ensure that vibration exposure is kept to a minimum; and
  • Choosing appropriate ergonomically designed and efficient tools, keeping them in good working order, and teaching personnel on how to use them correctly.
  • Employee education on HAVS and a way for employees and others to report symptoms and other information

Can someone help me carry out a vibration assessment or do tool testing for me?

Thankfully – yes! If this all sounds like it’s out of your comfort zone, or you’ve not got the time or staff on hand to make sure you’re legally compliant, then have one of our expert consultants come and do the hard work for you. Contact us through the online chat on www.castle-consultancy.com, or call us on 01723 584250 for a free discussion on how we can help.











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