The new noise-induced hearing loss? 

Posted: 23 September 2020

Nearly two million workers in the UK1 are at risk of developing hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), a debilitating, permanent condition caused by working with hand-held power tools. While it might not attract the same attention as other occupational diseases, it has the potential to be the next big area for insurance claims. 

HAVS refers to a range of conditions affecting the fingers, hands and arms, as well as specific diseases such as carpal tunnel syndrome. These conditions can affect the blood vessels, nerves and/or joints. 

Symptoms can appear after anything from a few months to a few years of exposure, and include tingling and numbness in the fingers; loss of strength in the hands and fingers going white and becoming red and painful on recovery. Over time, continued exposure can make the condition worse, permanently affecting the individual’s ability to work and enjoy their social life.  

Any vibrating hand-held tool can cause HAVS and, because of this, it’s a significant issue in a wide range of industries including construction, mines and quarries and motor vehicle manufacture and repair. People are affected differently too, with figures from the Health and Safety Executive indicating that 10% of employees exposed at exposure action level will contract HAVS within 12 years, or six years if exposed at the exposure limit level.  

handheld tool

6 figure fines handed out

The disabling nature of HAVS means regulations are in place to protect workers. The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 require employers to prevent or reduce risks to health and safety from exposure to vibration at work. Employers must also report cases under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR). 

These legal requirements mean there are some significant financial penalties for employers who put their workers at risk. As the sentencing guidelines take turnover into account, some six figure fines have been handed out. For example, in November 2019, a property management and development organisation was fined £600,000 after five employees contracted HAVS. 

Increased awareness of HAVS means there are also concerns that claims could hit the insurance sector hard in the next few years. With employees often exposed to the same vibration risk within an organisation, there’s the potential for multiple claims. Many fear that, from a claims perspective, it could be the next noise-related hearing loss. 

There’s plenty that employers can do to safeguard their workers and help to prevent a HAVS claims epidemic. The regulations require employers to assess the risk and reduce exposure where necessary. There are also legal limits in place, which must not be exceeded. 

To ensure the risk is kept to a minimum, some employers are updating tools and equipment. Others restrict the length of time and rate of vibration that an employee can be exposed to over the course of a day or week. It’s also prudent to ensure tools are well maintained and that employees are trained to use them correctly – a poorly maintained tool, or one used incorrectly, can increase an employee’s exposure to vibration. 

Technology can also help. Digital tool-mounted trigger timers and wearable tech can help employees keep their exposure within the acceptable limits. 

It’s also important for employers and their employees to be aware of the symptoms. Providing employees with training and regular health surveillance can ensure any potential problems are caught as early as possible, and before serious damage is sustained.  

Taking these responsibilities seriously and putting a robust framework in place will help to prevent HAVS affecting more people in the UK and reduce the risk of businesses suffering significant financial penalties and the unwanted publicity that often goes with it. 

Andy Miller
Risk Control Manager
Allianz Insurance plc