Construction workers often operate handheld power tools like jackhammers, grinders and plate compactors. Unfortunately, this everyday equipment can put them at risk for injuries caused by exposure to vibration. Hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) can lead to numbness, tingling and pain that can make it impossible to work.
“It’s estimated that half a million construction workers in the U.S. are at risk for developing hand-arm vibration syndrome,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “To reduce this risk, workers need to be trained to operate this equipment, educated on the potential hazards and encouraged to speak up if they experience or witness a problem when using these tools.”
Vibration’s Dangerous Effects
Operating a jackhammer or any handheld tool that vibrates exposes the body to pulsing and shaking that can affect circulation in the hands and fingers. Over time, this can permanently damage the blood vessels, nerves and muscles in the hand and arm. The shoulders and neck can also be affected. Depending on the level of vibration and the duration of exposure, HAVS can develop in as little as six months. Other times it may be years, but once HAVS occurs, the damage is irreversible and can lead to permanent disability. The NIOSH Power Tools Database contains sound power levels, sound pressure levels and vibration data for a variety of tools commonly used in construction that can cause HAVS. Symptoms include:
- Tingling sensations
- Discoloration of fingers
- Muscle fatigue or weakness
- Poor range of motion in the hand, arm joints or fingers
- Permanent or temporary loss of use of hands or arms
Workers who develop HAVS are at an increased risk for Raynaud’s syndrome (also known as white finger), a painful circulatory problem where the fingers lose dexterity, sensation and turn white because they aren’t getting enough blood. In the early stages, these symptoms can come and go (Raynaud’s is particularly sensitive to cold weather), but over time can worsen, become permanent and leave an affected worker unable to grip a hammer, pick up a nail, button a shirt or tie their shoe. In severe cases of Raynaud’s, skin can turn gangrenous.
HAVS can also cause carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), in which the nerves connecting the wrist to the hand become inflamed. The tingling, pain and numbness that result can also disrupt hand function, affecting a person’s ability to work or engage in daily activities like dressing or preparing a meal. Work-related CTS is a leading cause of disability.
What Can Employers Do?
OSHA does not have a vibration standard, but provides recommendations that can help employers protect workers:
- Maintain vibrating tools in proper working order.
- Arrange tasks so vibrating and non-vibrating tool use can be alternated.
- Limit the number of hours a worker uses a vibrating tool. Allow employees to take 10 to 15 minute breaks from tool use every hour.
- Train workers about the hazards of working with vibrating tools. Instruction should include the sources of vibration exposure, early signs and symptoms of HAVS and work practices for minimizing vibration exposure.
- Instruct workers to keep their hands warm and dry and to not grip a vibrating tool too tightly. Workers should allow the tool or machine to do the work.
Employers should also routinely assess the degree of vibration emitted by a tool, as this can change as the tool ages. They should also consider using vibration monitors that can track worker exposures to vibrations.
HAVS can be prevented. By following the recommendations above, employers can help protect employees from developing this debilitating condition so they can stay on the job and remain productive in both their professional and personal lives.
What about Anti-Vibration Gloves?
While anti-vibration gloves are available, their effectiveness is questionable. A NIOSH study found few glove designs actually reduced vibration transmitted to the palm of the hand and that effectiveness was “highly dependent” on the tool and the amount of vibration it causes. NIOSH concluded that anti-vibration gloves cannot be relied upon to provide sufficient protection and recommends other methods to control vibration be implemented first.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]