Bad vibrations – hand-arm vibration injuries and how to prevent them

Injuries cause by hand-arm vibrations are common, but there are things employers and employees can do to minimize the impact of vibrations on the job.

Injuries cause by hand-arm vibrations are common, but there are things employers and employees can do to minimize the impact of vibrations on the job.

Hand-arm vibration is caused when workers hold vibrating hand-held tools for an extended period of time. Whether it happens when someone is working on a vibrating surface, or from routine use of the tool – harmful vibrations are transmitted into the hands, wrists and arms causing a variety of health problems. Workers in all industries are susceptible to injuries and discomfort of this variety.

Potential health threats
Various ailments take root when a worker is insufficiently protected from the vibrations their hands experience every day. Here are some of the most common hand-arm injuries caused by excessive exposure to vibration.

  • Vibration Syndrome. The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development said that Vibration Syndrome is actually a collection of a variety of symptoms. Common ones include: muscle fatigue, muscle weakness, and pain in the hands, arms, wrists, and shoulders. Additional symptoms can even include headaches, irritability, depression, and problems with sleeping. 
  • Vibration-Induced White Finger (VWF). This ailment is also commonly referred to as "Dead Finger" or "Dead Hand." VWF occurs when hands receive insufficient blood flow due to the sustained use of vibrating hand tools. What makes it dangerous is its ability to avoid detection. Workers can have VWF without actually noticing symptoms for months, and in some cases, years. Tingling or numbness that lasts for a few minutes may not be indicative of VWF, but if a worker has no feeling in his or her hand for hours after ceasing their tool use, it may be a sign of VWF.
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS). The early symptoms of CTS are very similar to that of VWF, but they seem to affect the thumb, index, and middle finger more. Vibrations stemming from repetitive but vigorous use of a tool, such as turning a wrench or a screwdriver in a forceful way, are a major cause of CTS.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that the occupations most susceptible to hand-arm vibrations from hand tools are construction, metal working, auto manufacturing, furniture making, and foundries. 

Preventing injuries
Here are some ways employers and employees can reduce hand-arm vibration injuries. 

  • Redesign the job. Check and see if there is a way that the task can be completed with minimal hand tool use, or with another tool that minimizes the impact of vibrations. 
  • Constant breaks. Know when workers are going to be exposed to a high volume of vibrations and ensure that they are given plenty of opportunity to take breaks.
  • Wear protective gear. Padded gloves and tool handles can reduce the severity of the vibrations on the job.
  • Medical evaluations. Workers at risk should be evaluated regularly to promote the early detection of vibration syndrome.