Did you know that the regular use of vibrating hand tools may result in damage to the fingers, hands, and even forearms and can lead to a condition known as Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS)?
What is HAVS?
HAVS is an occupational health condition that affects workers in construction, forestry, agriculture, dentistry, assembly manufacturing, and mining. It is sometimes confused with carpal tunnel syndrome. HAVS results from small, repetitive injuries caused by vibration to the small nerves, blood vessels, tendons, muscles, and joints of the hands and forearms.
Damage to muscles, tendons, and joints can cause weakness, discomfort, and/or pain in the hands, wrists, forearms, and elbows. Damage to nerves can result in numbness and tingling (pins and needles sensation). Injury to blood vessels can lead to a condition known as Secondary Raynaud’s phenomenon, or vibration white finger (VWF). VWF is a condition where one or more fingers turn white and can often be painful. VWF can recur when the affected hand(s) are exposed to cold.
Long-term exposures to damaging vibrations can result in permanent numbness, tingling, more frequent episodes of “white fingers,” and muscle weakness. Loss of dexterity—clumsiness with fine movements—is another potential complication.
What kind of evaluation will I need?
During an evaluation for HAVS, your healthcare provider may test your grip, your fine motor movements, and, occasionally, your reaction to cold sensations. If your healthcare provider makes a diagnosis of HAVS, they may stop or change medications that may constrict blood vessels, which could make the symptoms of HAVS worse. Examples include medications for high blood pressure, oral decongestants, certain migraine medicines, and oral birth control pills. You must always check with your healthcare provider before discontinuing medications.
Your healthcare provider will reinforce the importance of maintaining good control of medical conditions that have an impact on nerves and blood vessels such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Your healthcare provider may advise you to stop smoking as nicotine constricts blood vessels.
How can I prevent HAVS?
If you have risk factors for developing HAVS and think you are experiencing symptoms of HAVS, it is important to take proactive steps as soon as possible to prevent worsening and complications. Talk to your employer and healthcare provider about eliminating the use of handheld vibrating tools or significantly reducing the use of handheld vibrating tools while continuing to monitor for persistent or worsening symptoms.
You can take these steps to minimize your risk of developing HAVS:
- Gripping power tools lightly and varying positions to reduce and distribute the impact of vibration.
- Maintaining tools in good working condition.
- Using only correct tools for specific tasks.
- Using low-vibration tools.
- Wearing gloves that meet ANSI 2.73/ISO 10819 standards.
- Taking breaks of at least 10 minutes each hour.
- Always keeping your hands warm and dry.
- Quitting cigarette use.
Employers should also control exposures to potentially harmful vibrations to employees by implementing changes to minimize risks to employees. This can prevent workers’ compensation claims and lead to improved job satisfaction as well as increased employee retention.
Sami Youakim, “Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS),” BC Medical Journal 51, no. 1 (2009): 10.
Oliver Starr, “Hand-arm Vibration Syndrome,” Patient, November 27, 2018.
U.S. General Services Administration, “Fact Sheet: Occupational Exposure to Hand-Arm Vibration (HAV).”
Sarah Trotto, “Hand-arm vibration syndrome,” Safety+Health, October 25, 2015.