What is HAVS?

Hand-arm Vibration Syndrome is a medical condition caused by frequent use of vibrating tools over an extended period of time – ten years or more in most cases. An estimated 1 in 10 people who use such tools eventually develop HAVS.
HAVS

Traditionally known as ‘white finger’ its symptoms include numbness in the fingers and muscle weakness. On occasion it lives up to its old name by actually making fingers turn white.

The cause

Working with hand-held tools that vibrate such as pneumatic and power drills or chainsaws is the main cause of HAVS. The likeliest cause is thought to be the accumulative effect of numerous small injuries to the nerves and blood vessels in the fingers.

The signs

At first HAVS sufferers experience loss of feeling or pins and needles in the affected fingers. These can be mild symptoms that come and go and just affect the tips. However, in more severe cases, the numbness becomes permanent and spreads along the whole finger or several fingers. This can result in reduced dexterity, with victims unable to perform simple tasks such as fastening buttons and handling coins.

Later changes

If HAVS continues to get worse, it can develop into Reynaud’s phenomenon, with permanent damage to blood vessels resulting in fingers becoming white and feeling cold, accompanied by aches and pains in the muscles. Fingers can also experience temporary bouts of turning from white to blue then bright red with intense tingling, throbbing and pain. These bouts can last from a few minutes to several hours. If the patient continues to use vibrating tools, the numbness can become permanent, with more frequent attacks of Reynaud’s phenomenon. These attacks tend to be associated with cold or wet conditions rather than occurring straight after vibration.

Prevention and cure

Stop using vibrating tools is the obvious course of action. However, the underlying condition can remain dormant or mild for a long time after stopping using such tools, before eventually developing into full blown HAVS.

A medicine called nifedipine, which opens up the small blood vessels, can be prescribed for HAVS. Patients are also advised to stop smoking and avoid caffeine, to exercise and keep the hands warm and dry.

If managers and employees are aware of the threat from long-term use of vibrating machinery and follow some basic prevention procedures, the chances of developing HAVS can be minimised. These include:

  • Holding tools as loosely as possible
  • Keeping tools well maintained
  • Using the right tool for the task – this makes it easier for operators to use the right grip and get jobs done faster
  • Taking regular breaks – at least 10 minutes
  • Keeping warm – especially the hands
  • Not smoking – the chemicals tobacco produces can slow blood flow

As with most health and safety issues, awareness and training are crucial - just one of the many good reasons to have employees and managers properly trained and up to date in health and safety matters by sending them on a course such as the NEBOSH Health & Safety at Work Award Certificate.