If you work with vibrating tools in your workplace on a regular basis, whether you are driving a fork truck or using a drill, you might be at risk for long term damage to your hands, arms and entire body.

Many workers don’t realise that long term exposure to vibrations can be a health hazard. When you are constantly exposed to vibrations, it can cause issues such as back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and even vascular disorders.

When you think about it, your body is a delicate thing. Shaking up your bones, joints and blood vessels violently for hours every day, for years on end will certainly have an effect. It might not be an effect that you notice right away, but it is something that will cause you damage over time.

Some of the industries that are at highest risk for vibration related injury are farming, forestry, transportation, construction and shipping. When it comes to vibration exposure, there are two different classifications – hand and arm vibration and whole body vibration. These two types of vibrations have very different sources and they have different effects on other parts of the body.

Hand and Arm Vibration

This is a type of vibration that damages only the hands and arms and it is caused by holding power tools such as chippers, grinders, screwdrivers and drills. It can also be caused by holding the controls of a vehicle.

Over time, the vibrations of the power tools that you are using will cause your muscles, bones, joints and tendons to change – and it can also damage your nervous system.

Some of the symptoms associated with hand and arm vibration damage include decreased sensation in the hands, decreased grip strength, blanching of the fingers (referred to as “white finger”) and carpal tunnel syndrome. You might experience tingling and loss of sensation in your fingers, as well as the loss of your ability to experience light touch. Many sufferers from hand arm vibration damage find that their symptoms are much worse when they are exposed to cold.

Whole Body Vibration

This type of occupational vibration exposure affects the entire body and it is caused by sitting in a vibrating vehicle or standing on a vibrating floor. This can include standing near a power press or shakeout equipment, or driving a fork truck or an off-road vehicle.

One of the major symptoms of whole body vibration is back pain, which can be so severe that it affects quality of life. Also, sufferers of whole body vibration damage find that they experience insomnia, fatigue, stomach problems, headache and an overall feeling of “shakiness”. You might have experienced these symptoms briefly after a long boat or car trip. However, after daily exposure over many years the vibrations that you are subjected to in your work environment will result in serious health problems.

Studies that have been conducted on bus drivers and truck drivers find that people in these professions suffer problems such as muscular and back disorders, bowel problems, circulatory issues, respiratory problems and much more. It is thought that these disorders are caused by a combination of body posture, dietary habits and the whole body vibration that these workers are subjected to on a daily basis.

How Much Vibration is Dangerous?

How much vibration can a person take until it starts to cause long term damage? How do you know if you are exposed to a dangerous level in your job? If the level of vibration is low enough, workers can be exposed to it for their entire working life without any risk of damage.

Of course, there are always individual differences when it comes to how much someone is affected by sensitivity to vibration. However, there are a number of important factors to consider, such as:

  • What is the intensity of the exposure? Measure the level of the vibrations to determine just how strong they are.
  • What is the duration of the vibration exposure? Is the vibration coming from a tool that is only used once every few days, or is it something that is used all day every day?

What are the Legal Standards?

Unfortunately, at the moment there are no legal standards when it comes to limiting the exposure that workers get to vibration. This means that workers all over the UK are being exposed to unhealthy levels of vibration every day. There are also no clinical tests that are designed to measure the effects of vibration damage, so it is difficult for doctors to diagnose this problem. Not every physician will recognise the issue or consider it right away.

What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk?

There are a number of things that you can do in order to reduce your risk of vibration related damage:

  • Installing a suspension system between yourself and the vibrating source can be a good way to decrease your levels of whole-body vibration.
  • Choosing the right power tools can be the best way to decrease your hand and arm vibration exposure. Consider the properties of the tool, its size, weight, the location of the handle and the tool drive mechanism. There are different ergonomic tool designers that can reduce hand and arm vibration.
  • Your supervisor should make sure that positions are being rotated and that workers are given rest periods, so that they are not exposed to vibration constantly all day.
  • All workers should receive health and safety training so that they can learn about vibration risk and how to avoid it. This health and safety training will instruct on regular tool maintenance and will teach workers how to grip their tools as lightly as possible, while still working safely.
  • Workers should be encouraged to report any initial symptoms of vibration exposure as early as possible. If these symptoms are reported and monitored early, the chronic health effects can be dramatically reduced.

These are just a few important pointers to keep in mind, so that you can reduce your risk of vibration exposure in the workplace.