Staff Diagnosed With Syndrome

Lancashire County Council has been fined £50,000 after 15 employees working in the highways department developed Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) as a result of failing to control exposure to vibration. IOSH magazine spoke to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector Jennifer French, who investigated the case, about what happened. 

Syndrome

‘Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) – formerly known as ‘vibration white finger’ – is a serious and disabling condition caused by exposure of the hands and arms to vibration when using hand-held tools, such as pneumatic drills, grinders, chipping hammers,’ explained Jennifer.  

‘Between 2014 and 2019, HAVS accounted for around 47% of all ill health RIDDORs. HAVS can cause a permanent and painful numbness and tingling in the hands and arms, also painful joints and muscle weakening, and there is also evidence that it may cause carpel tunnel syndrome. It is a serious and sometimes disabling condition that is irreversible. 

When did it initially start?

‘In this instance, the HSE was initially notified about a case of HAVS in February 2019. At that point, we met council employees responsible for managing the roadworking teams and spoke with the worker diagnosed with HAVS to get a feel for the activities and circumstances leading to the RIDDOR report. 

‘It was clear to me that there were breaches of the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 and I served an Improvement Notice requiring the council to control the risk of exposure to vibration.’ 

After the improvement notice was issued to Lancashire County Council, however, more cases of hand-arm vibration syndrome came to light.  

The first visit

‘Following my first visit, the council reviewed all of their health surveillance records and found earlier cases they had not reported under RIDDOR. Some of the cases they subsequently reported dated back a year or more,’ said Jennifer. 

In total, a further 10 cases of vibration-related ill-health unrelated to the initial RIDDOR report were uncovered and reported late. Four more reports were also filed, but these were on time. 

‘I made further visits to the council to take witness statements and obtain documentary evidence to gain a full understanding of the vibration management systems surrounding the roadworks department,’ Jennifer said. 

What caused the syndrome?

The HSE investigation found that there had been insufficient supervision and monitoring by the council to ensure that operatives accurately recorded their levels of exposure to vibration. 

In addition to this, health surveillance records had not been acted upon promptly to reduce or stop exposure levels when symptoms were reported. Also, risk assessments were not adequate for controlling the amount of exposure of operatives, and practices had not been implemented to prevent overexposure.  

On 5 May 2022 at Manchester Magistrates’ Court, Lancashire County Council pleaded guilty to breaches of section 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act and Regulation 8 of the RIDDOR Regulations 2013. The council was fined £50,000 and ordered to pay costs of £10,366. 

The council

‘The council was very co-operative throughout the whole investigation and immediately took measures to reduce the risk to their employees. It improved the way it monitored personal exposures and trialled – and later purchased – roadworking machinery that enabled its employees to conduct the work without needing to have their hands on the tools, while retaining the same quality of repair,’ Jennifer said.  

‘Lancashire County Council also conducted a full review of its health surveillance system. Health surveillance is no substitute for effective control measures, but when undertaken and managed properly it can help employers detect ill health effects, such as HAVS, at an early stage. When conditions are identified early, the employer can introduce better controls to prevent them getting worse. Although the council was conducting health surveillance, the results were not acted upon and therefore some employees’ conditions worsened. 

Prevention of the syndrome getting worse

‘Had the council had taken all of the measures it took after HSE’s investigation earlier, it would have been able to ensure its employees’ conditions did not deteriorate and the total of 15 reported HAVS incidences of ill-health could have been prevented. 

‘The risk of vibration-related ill health is foreseeable in this line of work, and the council did recognise that – it had procedures and training in place, and colleagues were aware of the condition – but effective measures to control the risk were not taken.’ 

Jennifer said there are some specific and important learning points from this case when it comes to reducing the risk of workers developing HAVS. 

Reducing risk

‘The only way to significantly reduce the risk of any individual developing HAVS is to eliminate exposure to vibration or, where elimination is not reasonably practicable, to reduce vibration exposure to as low as reasonably practicable,’ noted Jennifer. 

‘Workers are particularly at risk when regularly operating hammer action tools for more than about 15 minutes per day, or some rotary and other action tools for more than about one hour per day. 

‘Disabling HAVS is avoidable if the organisation has suitable controls in place controls in place, which are required by law. Companies and organisations should review whether they are taking the measures necessary to ensure compliance. HSE will not hesitate to seek enforcement action if companies or organisations are in breach of the law.’ 

Last weeks article is available here.

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Steve Kilburn
Steve Kilburn
I initially trained as an industrial chemist working in a variety of manufacturing environments eventually moving into quality management which grew to encompass environmental and occupational health and safety management systems. I hold a Masters Degree in Health and Safety law and Environmental Law and a Post Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Waste Management and I am a Graduate Level Member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). In my spare time I enjoy reading, my favourite author is Stephen King, and listening to music, generally from the late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
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