Too much shaking going on

1 Feb

Use of powered hand tools can cause health problems

Like most people today, my job on Safety Management magazine involves a lot of typing, and I cannot imagine what it would be like if I could not feel the keys under my fingertips, or if I were to suffer any kind of pain in my fingers and hands that would make typing difficult. My role would be become impossible and sadly, I would be forced to change career completely. 

So when I read about the circumstances behind a rare and unusual Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecution (http://www.hse.gov.uk/press/2011/coi-nw-73cheshireeast.htm) which came before the courts recently, it not only struck me that the British Safety Council’s magazine needed to report it more widely to draw attention to the issues concerned, but made we think how lucky I am to have the full use of my hands, fingers and wrists, and how difficult it must be for those who suffer injury to them – particularly through no fault of their own.

In the case concerned, a 56-year-old mechanic was left with such severe loss of movement in his hands a result of his everyday work that he now has difficultly picking up small objects such as coins. These injuries have had a devastating effect on his quality of life.

Now this poor guy’s injuries are not due to exposure to a rare chemical, or a freak accident that affects few people, but to an activity that happens in millions of workplaces up and down the land: the use of powered hand tools such as pneumatic drills, grinders and sanders.  And while the risks of nerve and muscle damage from using these vibrating hand tools has been known for years, it’s clear from this case that many employers are still failing to take the problem seriously enough.

The HSE has been stressing for years that anyone who works regularly with hand-held or hand-guided power tools for more than a few hours a day is potentially at risk of suffering hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), as this debilitating health condition is known. The problem occurs because prolonged vibration from the tools can affect the nerves, blood vessels and joints of the hand, wrist and arm, causing tingling and numbness in the fingers, stopping the sufferer from feeling things properly with their fingers and hands and leading to painful finger blanching (whitening), particularly in the cold and wet. If the sufferer continues to use high-vibration tools the damage to the hands can – as in the case of the mechanic – become permanent.    

However, the problem can be avoided by adopting some simple, commonsense measures, such as mechanising tasks or, if hand tools are still required, selecting low-vibration models and introducing task rotation. Indeed, the HSE says that if employers comply with the law in this area and follow the relevant guidance, it may be possible to eliminate any new cases of HAVS altogether.  

Safety Management will be reporting more about the story of the mechanic whose life was changed forever by exposure to HAV in the March issue, primarily to highlight the dangers, but also because this is a rare prosecution. Enforcement records suggest that just one other employer has been taken to court by the HSE for failing to protect workers from exposure to HAV in the last decade, though there have been several civil compensation cases.

In the meantime, look out for the February issue of the mag – due to land later this week – which contains a three-page feature on this subject.

And if you do have workers using hand-held power tools – or if you use them yourself – think of this unfortunate mechanic, and make sure this devastating health condition is eradicated.

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