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Not so good vibrations - more HSE prosecutions for Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome

  • United Kingdom
  • Environment
  • Health and safety

13-07-2018

A fine of £500,000 has been imposed in a recent case of hand arm vibration syndrome. This follows fines of £280,000 in 2016 and £120,000 in 2017. These cases serve as a stark reminder to all duty holders to revisit the measures in place to control the risks from the use of vibrating equipment.

What is Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome?

Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) is a permanent condition affecting the nerves and blood vessels of the hand. The symptoms vary but it can cause pain, tingling and numbness of the hand and fingers. It usually makes everyday tasks difficult. It is also known as vibration white finger and dead finger.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) records that over 2 million UK workers are at risk of developing HAVS. Typically, this can arise from the use of hand-held vibrating power tools (percussive drills, hammers, grinders, sanders, chainsaws) and by holding materials which vibrate as they are processed by powered machinery (pedestal grinders, riveting machines, rotary polishers).

Why are duty holders falling foul of the law?

Duty holders must eliminate or otherwise minimise exposure to vibration in accordance with The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005. They set out an exposure action value and an exposure limit value; when the former is reached this presents a clear risk and triggers the implementation of organisational and technical measures to reduce exposure, the latter should not be exceeded.  It is important however to take steps to ensure that the risk is managed well before the exposure action value is reached.

This is becoming a focus area for the HSE, its declared strategy to move beyond traditional safety issues and look more closely at occupational health risks. HAVS is also a reportable disease under RIDDOR, which alerts the HSE to a potential problem.

In our experience, there are a number of reasons why duty holders fall foul of their legal obligations including:

  • A lack of awareness and training of the workforce to its symptoms and a reluctance to report due to a “macho” work culture;
  • A lack of a consistent health surveillance programme with continuity often being lost over a number of years;
  • A lack of appreciation of how to interpret and respond to findings of health surveillance; and
  • A failure to revisit the nature or frequency of health surveillance, for example, due to the introduction of new work processes or equipment.

Do the fines reflect the risk?

Recent fines in HAVS cases have undoubtedly become more significant. Since February 2016 all fines in health and safety cases are determined in line with the Health and Safety Sentencing Guideline (the Guideline), which has significantly increased levels of fines.

To commit an offence, it must be shown that a duty holder did not adequately guard against a foreseeable material risk, and the Guideline imposes a fine based upon increasingly familiar parameters including in particular the level of culpability and the risk of harm.

The actual severity of any actual injury suffered is not determinative of a fine and of course there does not have to be any injury for there to be a successful prosecution. The courts  look to the potential seriousness and likelihood of the harm risked, which in HAVS cases is usually regarded as significant. It is also often the case that exposure is not limited to a single individual and may have persisted for a considerable period of time – often  years which can be an aggravating factor resulting in an increased fine.

For example, under the Guideline a medium-sized organisation (one with annual turnover between £10 million and £50 million) which  is found guilty of breaches in the highest  culpability and harm categories  faces a starting point for a fine of  £950,000.

What should we do to tackle the risks arising from vibration ?

  • Risk assessment: Employers are under a legal duty to undertake a suitable and sufficient risk assessment for employees at risk from vibration.
  • Know your employees:  Ensure that when employing someone employers are  aware of any existing conditions as a result of working with vibrating tools and have records to pass to its health surveillance provider and occupational health team.
  • Occupational Health: engage health professionals with sufficient experience of identifying HAVS.
  • Train employees:  Awareness will mean that employees who develop symptoms can take action immediately. But the obligation lies with the employer, not the employee. 
  • Monitoring exposure:  Employers should be aware of what relevant activities and equipment they undertake and use and that the vibration limits are legally compliant and as low as reasonably practicable.
  • Low vibration tools:  Ensure awareness of new technical developments and availability of low vibration tools for work. 
  • Keep warm:  Warm clothing can help ensure circulation and reduce the risk of finger blanching. 

If you would like to discuss the management of vibration risks in your business, please contact Amy Sadro, Senior Associate, or any of the Eversheds Sutherland Environment, Health and Safety team.

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