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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Preventative steps

Reducing exposure to vibrating machinery, worker training and health surveillance are key steps to help avoid hand arm vibration syndrome, says MARK TAYLOR.

HAVS is serious and disabling, and it has been calculated that two million people are being exposed to the disease in the UK alone – so if you do the proportional math, this equates to 142,000 workers at risk in New Zealand.

There are hundreds of different types of hand-held power tools and equipment which can cause ill health from vibration. Some of the more common ones include: chainsaws, concrete breakers, hammer drills, handheld grinders, impact wrenches, polishers, scabblers, lawn mowers and cut-off saws.

However, HAVS is preventable and there are a number of measures which can be adopted to eliminate it, or if this is not possible to control and mitigate the risk.

The most efficient and effective way of controlling exposure to hand-arm vibration is to look for new or alternative work methods which eliminate the need to hold vibrating equipment. An example is to use a breaker attachment on an excavating machine to break concrete rather than using a handheld breaker.

The primary cause of hand-arm vibration is the magnitude of the vibration and the duration of exposure, so if you can’t eliminate the risk, try rotating crew members on shifts, so their daily maximum exposure is not exceeded.

The choice of plant can be a big factor as many old and poorly maintained machines increase the risk due to excessive vibration. So maintain your equipment on a regular basis and when purchasing new plant, choose ones with special dampers which reduce the vibration into the hands and arms.

Most types of tool manufacturers use internationally agreed methods for vibration testing. These allow companies to compare the vibration performance of different brands and models of the same type of tool.

Unfortunately, many of these test methods do not represent the way tools perform at work where vibration levels in the workplace may be much higher than those in this type of laboratory test. The best way is to get an expert to do field tests on the specific materials workers are using, or undertake an approved training course to NZQA Unit Standard 12293 so you can do it yourself.

Once the in-field vibration levels have been established for the different types of plant and equipment, it is possible to attach sensors to each piece of plant, which calculate the amount of vibration a worker is exposed to during a single shift.

The data in the sensors is converted into a points-based system and when the maximum cumulative total is reached, the sensor bleeps signifying the person should stop work and hand the operation over to someone else.

Cold or wet weather conditions also increase the risk, so provide workers with warm gloves and waterproof clothing to mitigate the exposure. Many safety equipment providers are now promoting the use of padded anti-vibration gloves. These may offer a small amount of protection, but the vibration is still constant, so don’t rely on them.

Health surveillance is essential for all employees at risk. The purpose of health surveillance is to identify anyone exposed to hand-arm vibration and who may be at particular risk, for example people with blood circulatory diseases such as Reynaud’s Disease. It is therefore important that health surveillance is done prior to employment and at regular intervals to spot trends at an early stage and to check the effectiveness of vibration control methods.

Basic health surveillance consists of regularly seeking information about early symptoms of ill health by using a questionnaire. It may help you keep costs down if you carry out this function yourself, referring any positive responses to an occupational health service provider.

Companies should provide training to ensure workers are given information about the dangers and sources of HAVS and let them know if any equipment they use poses a risk. The training should also provide information on how to recognise and report the symptoms of HAVS, give clear guidance on the correct techniques for holding the equipment, and maintaining good blood circulation by keeping warm and cutting down on smoking, which significantly increases the risk.

MARK TAYLOR is director of Safety Matters (NZ) Ltd,

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