Occupational Hygiene Blog

Bad vibrations - What workers at risk of whole-body and arm-hand vibration should know...

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

Operating power tools, vehicles and heavy equipment can take both an immediate and eventual toll on the body. For millions of workers in the construction, maintenance, mining, forestry, transportation, agriculture and automotive industries, the effects of sustained on-the-job exposure to vibration – whether hand-arm or whole-body – may lead to various health problems. So what can be done to help prevent this?

Hand-arm vibration

Workers exposed to vibration through regular use of power tools are at risk of hand-arm vibration syndrome, which NIOSH calls “a collective term for vibration-induced neurological, vascular and musculoskeletal disorders in the hand-arm system.”

Tools linked to hand-arm vibration include chain saws, drills, grinders, riveters and jackhammers. The risk exists regardless of whether the tool is powered by electricity, gasoline or air.

Symptoms of HAVS include tingling, numbness, pain and discoloration in the fingers, as well as weakened grip from nerve and blood vessel damage. In addition the “blanching,” or discoloration, typically starts in the tips of one or two fingers and can spread to other fingers and even the opposite hand.

A hallmark disorder of HAVS is vibration white finger, or Raynaud’s syndrome – an irreversible, potentially disabling condition that arises when repeated vibration exposure causes the blood vessels in the affected fingers to collapse.

1. Tips for reducing the risk of HAVS. Among them:

2. Use damping techniques or vibration isolators on equipment.

3. Keep machines and tools in proper working order.

4. Alternate between vibrating and non-vibrating tools.Allow workers to take 10- to- 15-minute breaks each hour.

5. Educate workers on vibration hazards and best practices for limiting exposure.

6. Advise workers to keep their hands warm and dry and to grip tools lightly.

Whole-body vibration

Uneven terrain, bumpy roads, potholes and even choppy waves at sea are common contributors to whole-body vibration. When a truck, tractor, ship, etc., traverses these or other obstacles, vibrations transfer through the vehicle and its seat to the operator’s pelvis and lumbar spine. Repeated exposure impacts the spinal discs, and accumulated vibrations can add up – possibly triggering lower back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders. According to experts, it takes years of persistent exposure for tissue damage to become apparent. Complicating the issue is that whole-body vibration damage is often mistaken for other common work-related ailments. For example, does a truck driver’s balky back stem from steady vibration exposure or years of lifting cargo?

Various active seat suspension systems – although often “fairly expensive in a price-sensitive industry,” Johnson said – include components that can help attenuate more vibration and reduce the effects, such as swaying and side tipping. Using an air suspension system similar to that of a conventional truck seat, the new seats also include technology that processes data from a sensor in the seat base to cancel forces in real time. The European Union has established “action level” regulatory standards for vibration over an 8-hour, time-weighted average, defined as that above which the risk of health effects increase. Safety & Health Magazine - 26th May 2019

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