Safety watch: How to reduce the risk of hand-arm vibration syndrome

Updated Jan 24, 2024
Chain saws are one of the tools that can give off significant vibrations. Photo: PixabayChain saws are one of the tools that can give off significant vibrations.
Photo: Pixabay

Hazards in the landscaping industry are plentiful, but one of the easily overlooked threats is hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), which can have severe consequences if not caught early on.

Discovered back in 1918, HAVS has been plaguing many industries’ workers, and around 2.5 million U.S. workers are exposed daily to hand-arm vibration through the use of power tools.

“I’d go as far to say it’s probably the No. 1 neuromuscular disorder in the world in manufacturing and construction environments, the most costly and underappreciated,” Donald Peterson, dean of the College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at Texas A&M University – Texarkana, tells Safety+Health Magazine.

The symptoms of HAVS can appear in a few months or several years, depending on the exposure. Early signs of HAVS include tingling or numbness in the hands and fingers and attacks of blanching or whitening on one or more fingers when exposed to the cold.

The attacks are often mistaken for frostbite by workers and early attacks will last a few minutes and occur infrequently. Yet as exposure to vibrations continue, the attacks will increase in frequency, pain and duration and eventually will occur in both warm and cold weather, whether the individual is on the job or not.

When the fingers lose blood flow, loss in touch perception and dexterity will also follow due to nerve damage. Once HAVS is fully developed, it is irreversible and currently cannot be cured by medical or surgical treatment.

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has yet to set acceptable exposure values like it has with noise levels, this does not mean that vibrations or HAVS should be ignored.

Tools such as drills, chain saws and grinders are common vibration sources and hand-arm vibration can occur regardless of the type of power source it uses.

Some of the preventative methods to reduce exposure to hand-arm vibration include:

  • Damping techniques or using vibration isolators on equipment to provide the most effective protection
  • Keeping machines in proper working order
  • Arranging work tasks so vibrating and non-vibrating tools can be used alternately
  • Letting workers take 10 to 15 minute breaks for every hour using a vibrating tool
  • Training workers on vibration hazards as well as early signs and symptoms of HAVS
  • Advising workers to keep their hands dry and warm and to grip the tool lightly

“One of the simplest work practices is holding the tool with only the amount of force that’s required to keep it safely under control,” Mark Geiger, occupational safety and health manager with the Naval Safety Center Liaison Office, tells Safety+Health Magazine. “People who grip a tool with a death grip increase the vibration coupling. They also fatigue themselves more quickly.”

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