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Not-So-Good Vibrations: Is Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) In Your Future?


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As if working in construction doesn’t come with a host of health and safety hazards, tools commonly used by construction laborers, trade personnel, and other manual workers have been found to create a constellation of problems. The overall name given to this group of health issues is Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS). 

The U.S. National Safety Council published an estimate stating around two million workers are exposed to hand-arm vibration, of which about half could develop HAVS. 

Prolonged use of a vibrating tool can cause damage to the nerves, muscles, bones, and circulatory system of the hands and arms. 

Prolonged use of a vibrating tool can cause damage to the nerves, muscles, bones, and circulatory system of the hands and arms. The first step to combating HAVS is recognizing the issue, then building awareness and implementing preventive measures.

Defining HAVS

Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome is a work-related disorder that impacts thousands of industrial workers. Frequent use of vibrating power tools puts every user at risk. The main factors driving the risk are vibration levels and trigger time per work shift. The problem worsens in cold, wet conditions.

The risk grows with exposure over time, meaning at least 38 percent of workers over the age of 50 who have been in the industry a number of years show signs and symptoms of HAVS. The syndrome was noted in Italian miners as far back as 1911 with increased reports of Raynaud’s (ray-NOHZ) Phenomenon, carpal tunnel syndrome, and neurosensory injury over the past century. 

Signs and Symptoms of HAVS

The first symptoms to occur are typically the repeated numbness and loss of feeling in the fingers. As damage to the nerves and blood vessels continues, more severe symptoms are observed, including potentially permanent loss of feeling in the fingers.

Another sign of HAVS is Raynaud’s Phenomenon (sometimes referred to as white finger), in which the fingertips react becoming white and then red. The color change is typically accompanied by pain that may feel like needles in the skin or tingling. In severe cases, gangrene can result.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is another frequent result of HAVS. 

Carpal tunnel syndrome is another frequent result of HAVS. Carpal tunnel syndrome involves the inflammation of a nerve at the wrist as it travels through a narrow bony passageway. The inflammation causes the nerve to become entrapped within the pathway, causing pain, weakness, and numbness in the hand and wrist.

Other problems seen in HAVS include the development of osteoarthritis in the hands, wrists, and arms as well as reduced function in the muscles of the muscles in the affected limbs. Sufferers can develop tendonitis and fibrosis as well.

Jobsite Prevention Tips

  • Ensure all equipment and tools are well-maintained. Worn parts can create more vibration.

  • Try different tools to find one that does not cause numb fingers when used briefly.

  • Limit the amount of time vibrating tools are used each shift. Strong vibrations can cause damage within minutes; for example, hand exposure to vibrations of 20 m/s2 can result in damage in as little as eight minutes.

  • Hold the tool loosely. Do not squeeze the handle unnecessarily.

  • Use the right tool. A stronger, more efficient tool with optimal trigger time can shorten the time required to complete a job, reducing the chance of damage.

  • Take regular breaks and avoid long sessions of high vibrations. Do a different job in between sessions. 

  • Avoid contact with freezing or extremely cold handles and keep hands warm and dry.

Prevention Efforts by Tool Manufacturers

OSHA does not have specific exposure regulations, but other countries have instituted legislation to limit vibration exposure. The new regulations have prompted tool-makers to respond with monitoring devices that can measure duration and magnitude of vibration exposure by a worker. Work gloves with vibration sensors are available from certain vendors. A microchip and copper wire strands are integrated into the glove as an electronically functional yarn.

Other wearable devices are available as well. Information from wearable chips can be uploaded to a software program to monitor the duration and magnitude of vibration exposure.

Information from wearable chips can be uploaded to a software program to monitor the duration and magnitude of vibration exposure. 

ANSI, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, and NIOSH are among those groups providing consensus standards in the US. 

Building awareness of Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome, HAVS, among construction workers, managers, and companies will pave the way to safer work practices and help workers, and their physicians, make earlier, more accurate determinations about hand and arm issues. Training workers to avoid or minimize exposure to vibration as well as monitoring exposure can save them from potentially permanent damage and potential disability.

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