Why is vibration a problem in construction work?

The construction industry is a high risk industry for vibration related ill health. The main risk is from the use of hand held vibrating tools such as breakers, hammer drills / combihammers or scabblers. Use of hand held hammer or rotary action vibrating tools can lead to Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) if not correctly controlled.

As a rough guide, if workers regularly use hammer action power tools for more than 15 minutes per day, or rotary or other action power tools for more than about an hour per day, there may be a problem with exposure to hand-arm vibration. If workers complain of tingling in their hands that lasts for 10 minutes or more after use of a power tool, this may also indicate a problem.

Quality of life can be badly affected by hand-arm vibration syndrome. For some people symptoms appear after only a few months of exposure but for others it may take years. For example, affected people may find that:

  • they suffer tingling and numbness in the fingers, or pain, distress or disturbed sleep
  • they cannot feel things properly or do fine work (eg assembling small components) or everyday tasks (eg fastening buttons)
  • they lose strength in the hands, for example reduced grip strength or reduced ability to work in cold or damp conditions, which might affect their ability to work safely
  • their fingers go white (blanching) and becoming red and painful on recovery

What is the best way to reduce exposure to hand-arm vibration on a construction site?

Eliminating the process that is resulting in exposure to hand-arm vibration or substituting it for a process which results in less exposure are the best ways of dealing with hand-arm vibration exposure on a construction site. You will need to consider this during the risk assessment process. Selecting equipment that reduces exposure to vibration can help significantly. Organisational measures, such as job rotation, can also be useful.

Here are some examples of how you can reduce exposure to hand-arm vibration:

  • Eliminate vibration exposure during design. For example, design ducts into a structure rather than chasing channels in walls. Avoid specifying scabbled finishes to concrete structures.
  • Substitute a process which results in exposure to vibration for one that eliminates or reduces exposure. For example, blocks can be split with a hydraulic block splitter rather than a cut-off saw, equipment, such as breakers, can be machine mounted which removes the need for the operator to hold the equipment, pile caps can be cropped using hydraulic pile croppers or an alternative method, such as the Elliot or Recipieux methods.
  • Select low vibration equipment. For example, compare vibration levels from power tools when buying or hiring equipment. Use information from the manufacturer or supplier, and choose a tool that is effective for the job and results in low exposure to vibration.
  • Ensure equipment is used by suitably trained staff and in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions.
  • If hand-held vibrating tools are used, job rotation can reduce the exposure of individuals. Protect workers from cold and damp by providing suitable clothing and gloves as this can reduce the likelihood of hand-arm vibration symptoms appearing, but note that gloves are not an effective protection against vibration.

Is it necessary to measure vibration levels for hand held vibrating tools at a construction site?

In many cases a risk assessment for vibration at a construction site can be prepared without using equipment to measure the vibration levels. The assessment must be based on reliable information though and should include a realistic estimate of the employee's exposure.

You may find it useful to observe work activities, measure the exposure time over part of the day and use this to estimate exposure during a full shift. If an employee is exposed to vibration from more than one tool or work process during a typical day, you will need to collect information about the likely vibration level(s) and exposure time for each source.

Information from manufacturers or suppliers about vibration levels produced by the equipment can be used to calculate the daily exposure unless there is reason to believe it is not valid, for example if the tool is being used in a way not specified by the manufacturer or supplier.

The quality of vibration data should be discussed with suppliers / manufacturers of equipment. Vibration data measured according to current standards should give a good indication of the likely exposure to vibration when the tool is in use, but manufacturers may also give additional information about residual risk, such as when the results of the standard vibration tests are known not to be very representative of real usage.

Do anti-vibration gloves reduce exposure to vibration, for example for workers using hand-held breakers?

No. Anti-vibration gloves are not an effective measure against exposure to hand-arm vibration. Using normal gloves to help keep the hands warm in cold weather is useful, but no gloves provide effective protection against vibration from hand held tools.

Should tool timers or vibration meters be used to routinely monitor exposure to vibration during the use of hand-held vibrating tools?

No. There is no legal requirement for continual monitoring and recording of vibration exposure. Timers and vibration meters can be a useful tool for carrying out a risk assessment or for monitoring the preventive measures in place to ensure that they are effective. Relying on these devices to ensure that workers do not exceed the Exposure Limit Value (5 m/s2 A(8)) on a day to day basis is not appropriate and if your employees are continually working up-to the Exposure Limit Value then you should be looking at doing the work in a different way. Restricting exposure to just below the Exposure Limit Value will still result in many workers developing Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS).

Where can I get more information about vibration?

If you would like further information about vibration related topics including:

  • how to carry out an assessment of exposure to vibration
  • what the law says about vibration and vibration levels
  • the vibration exposure calculator
  • typical vibration levels for common construction activities
  • further examples about how to reduce exposure
  • whole body vibration
  • health surveillance

try these links:

Trade associations and other industry bodies can also be a good source of information about how to control exposure to vibration in your work.

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