Vibration Causes Nerve Damage (Britain)

A Nottinghamshire aerospace engineering company has been ordered to pay more than £190,000 in fines and costs for failing to protect its employees from the effects of vibration, after 24 workers were diagnosed with debilitating nerve conditions.

Nottingham Crown Court heard that although HSE was notified of an employee being diagnosed with HAVS in 2010, the issue dated back to 2005 when the company’s health and safety committee asked it to carry out a suitable risk assessment for exposure to vibration, and act on the result. An assessment of the company’s tools took place in 2006 which identified some, including drills, grinders and hammers, posed a high risk from exposure to vibration. However, they were not taken out of service and no controls were put on their use until 2010. In addition, some employees used their own tools, which were also not assessed and therefore no controls put in place. HSE found that although the company provided some health surveillance for employees, it was not sufficient to identify symptoms early and refer individuals to occupational health specialists for timely diagnosis and management.

The symptoms of HAVS syndrome include blanching and numbness in the fingers, especially in the cold, as well as pins and needles, which can be extremely painful. This is due to damage to the small blood vessels and nerves supplying the hands. Sufferers can have difficulty picking up small objects and performing tasks such as doing up buttons. As sufferers cannot be exposed to cold without pain it can restrict some work and hobbies such as fishing, cycling or gardening.

Sufferers of carpal tunnel syndrome also experience pain and pins and needles, especially at night, and a reduction in grip. An operation is normally needed to release the nerve, although this is less successful if they have been exposed to vibration.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE Inspector Dawn Smith said:

“SPS Aerostructures Ltd was, from 2005, regularly being made aware that employees were suffering from vibration-related symptoms. They were being supplied with this information directly from staff and from their Occupational Health Nurse. However, they chose to ignore this information and allowed employees to work unrestricted with high risk tools, or their own tools.”

“The company was slow to implement improvements even after HSE’s involvement and had to be issued with an Improvement Notice in 2011 to ensure compliance.”

“Adequate assessment of the risk from vibration, provision of tools with lower vibration levels, and a good system of work would have ensured workers were not over-exposed to vibration. A better health surveillance system would also have identified problems earlier, and symptoms could have been managed to prevent them getting worse.”

Prosecution was for breach of Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, which states: “It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.”

The HSE press release is here.

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