Hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) is a condition resulting from the continuous use of vibrating hand-held tools. Chronic exposure to high levels of vibration was first recognized as a hazard at the beginning of the 20th century. This may be the origin of the study of repetitive stress disorders. Workers at risk for HAVS include construction workers, miners, carpenters, maintenance workers, metalwork and steel workers, and those working in the forestry industry. Experts view HAVS as the number one neuromuscular disorder in the world with regard to manufacturing and construction environments, resulting in enormous costs to treat those affected by it.
HAVS affects the blood vessels, nerves, muscles, and joints in the hand and arm and can be recognized through its early symptoms that include:
Though these are relatively mild symptoms, if left unchecked, chronic exposure to vibration can lead to permanent numbness in the fingers and loss of dexterity and grip strength. Another medical condition known as vibration white finger (VWF) can develop in which the fingers literally turn white. After the onset of this “blanching”, the condition is irreversible. Some severe cases of HAVS can even result in amputation.
It is estimated that as many as 2 million workers are exposed to occupational vibrations that may be hazardous. More than half of them will develop HAVS as a result. The number could be even larger as it is thought that HAVS cases often go unreported because the initial symptoms are intermittent. Some cases are misdiagnosed or confused with carpal tunnel syndrome. Additionally, many workers are either not aware of the potential seriousness of the early symptoms of HAVS, or do not know how to recognize them. Any worker who uses the following power tools is at risk of developing HAVS:
Additional risk factors for workers include working in a cold, damp environment; poor tool maintenance; and tobacco use. Tools that have been abused or even have normal wear and tear can cause vibration levels to be twice as high. The nicotine in tobacco is a vasoconstrictor which means that blood flow to the extremities is reduced thereby increasing the risk to the worker.
The two factors that contribute to HAVS include the vibration amount emitted by the tool being used by the worker; and the length of time the worker uses that tool. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) currently has no standards for vibration amounts, largely because they are difficult to measure accurately. However, tool suppliers must disclose the vibration emissions of their products to demonstrate compliance with European Union standards. Therefore, this information is available to employers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that employers purchase hand tools with reduced vibration levels for their employees. Wherever possible, production lines should be constructed in a way that puts the need for vibrating hand tools at a minimum.
Other OSHA recommended work practices to reduce the risk of HAVS include:
The seriousness of HAVS cannot be overstated as the damage done to nerves and blood vessels in severe cases is irreversible. If you have any symptoms of HAVS you should see a medical professional immediately and limit your exposure to vibration as much as possible. Consult with an experienced Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation lawyer as you may be eligible for Workers’ Compensation benefits for your injuries. A successful claim will provide you with some or all of the following benefits:
If you use vibrating hand tools at work and suffer from HAVS, we can help you seek compensation for your injury. At Gross & Kenny, LLP, we focus exclusively on helping injured workers obtain the financial relief they need so they can concentrate on their recovery. A consultation with one of our Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation lawyers is free and confidential. Call us today at 267-589-0090 or contact us online. We are conveniently located in Center City Philadelphia serving injured workers throughout Pennsylvania.