More than just pins and needles

An often overlooked health and safety hazard for construction workers is the damage caused by extended exposure to vibrations from, for example, the use of power tools

Some of the safety risks associated with equipment use are easy to spot, for example, the risk of a cut when using a saw. Others are less obvious. In the construction industry, a common but less obvious risk when using certain equipment is what is known as hand-arm vibration syndrome, which is caused by the extended use of power tools.

The vibration from power tools is absorbed by the hand or arm and can result in neurological, vascular and musculoskeletal disorders or damage. For example, blood vessels can be damaged resulting in finger blanch, which is followed by increasing numbness, tingling and pain. Damage to nerve endings can result in sensory loss, compromised fine-motor movement and chronic pain.

Hand-arm vibration syndrome is a potential disability and its effects are irreversible. When the signs are visible in an employee, such as blanched fingers or pain, it is already too late. Employers should therefore educate employees on how to limit the risk of hand-arm vibration syndrome. The American Occupational Safety and Health Administration has the following suggestions:

• Use damping techniques or vibration isolators on equipment;

• Keep machines and tools in proper working order;

• Alternate between using vibrating and non-vibrating tools;

• Allow workers to take 10 to 15-minute breaks each hour;

• Educate workers on vibration hazards and best practices for limiting exposure; and

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

There are also anti-vibration gloves available to assist in minimising the damage caused by vibration. The Dromex Mach Impact and Vibration Pad Glove, for example, features foam padding on the palm to help absorb and divert vibration. These gloves are made for specific industries. It is, therefore, important to ensure the gloves purchased are suited to the particular industry.

In addition to ensuring the gloves provide sufficient protection against vibration, it is also important to choose a glove with adequate impact and cut resistance as these risks are also associated with using power tools.

If there aren’t already measures in place to prevent hand-arm vibration syndrome, employers are encouraged to address the issue immediately, as it can take years for the damage to become apparent at which point it might be too late.

In addition, the symptoms are often attributed to other causes. This means employers won’t necessarily address the extended exposure to vibration.

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