Some vibrations can be therapeutic and relaxing, which is why we all love those vibrating massage chairs you see for sale at the mall. But too much vibration over an extended period of time can be more harmful than most people realize. If you work in construction or otherwise use power tools for hours each day, you could be at risk of developing a condition known as hand-arm vibration syndrome, or HAVS.
It was first discovered more than 100 years ago in limestone quarry workers. Despite it’s long timeline, however, it is still not a well-known risk among most workers.
Symptoms and signs of trouble
Those who use jackhammers, sanders, drills, rivet guns, chain saws and other vibrating power tools may experience some tingling immediately after use. That’s normal. But if these tools are used long enough and often enough, workers may feel that tingling even when not using the tool. Other symptoms include:
- Numbness in the hands and arms
- Weakened grip (resulting from blood vessel and nerve damage)
- Loss of color in the fingers (blanching or turning white)
- Gangrene (in severe cases)
The most visible sign of HAVS is blanching of the fingers. This looks very similar to a better-know condition called Raynaud’s phenomenon, which is also characterized by loss of color in the fingers and feelings of numbness. In some cases, Raynaud’s can be triggered by repeated exposure to vibration.
How common is HAVS, and can it be treated?
Accurate estimates are difficult to come by because HAVS is sometimes misdiagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome. But one medical professional interviewed by Safety and Health Magazine estimated that approximately 2 million U.S. workers are exposed to vibrations in their hands and arms regularly. Of those, up to half could develop HAVS at some point in their careers.
The condition is reversible up to a certain point (it becomes irreversible once the fingers blanch). Catching it early and changing to a job with far less vibration will allow the body to heal on its own (or at least avoid getting worse). And, as always, the best “cure” is prevention.
If you need to work with vibrating tools each day, you can reduce your risk of HAVS by:
- Gripping the tool lightly
- Taking regular breaks of at least 10 minutes each hour
- Keeping tools tuned up to prevent excess vibrations
- Keeping your hands warm
- Choosing not to smoke (it exacerbates the symptoms)
- Looking into gloves or other gear that might dampen vibrations
HAVS is a qualifying injury for workers’ compensation
HAVS is a cumulative injury caused by repetitive motion and repetitive stress. If you start to experience symptoms, please report them to your employer and look into scheduling a medical exam. Because your injuries are work-related, you may very well qualify for workers’ compensation benefits.