When you work with certain power tools and machinery — like grinders, sanders or jackhammers — you may notice that your hands feel numb or tingly. That’s normal, after holding a high-power, vibrating piece of industrial equipment. But when that numbness doesn’t go away, or when you start to experience pain or weakness in your hands, you may be experiencing early signs of an overuse injury.
In the United Kingdom and Canada, overuse injuries caused by the use of vibrating machinery are classified as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), and in the U.K., there are laws that dictate maximum usage time for vibrating machinery. But in the United States, there are no legal standards for preventing hand-arm vibration injuries.
HAVS can occur in workers who routinely use vibrating equipment — it can happen in just a few months, but usually, it takes a few years of heavy machinery use to elicit symptoms. Read on to learn more about HAVS, and how you can protect yourself.
Symptoms of overuse Injury
Vibration can disrupt the nervous system and cause hand weakness, cysts in fingers or wrists, blanching of fingers — especially when exposed to cold — and a loss of sensation in hands and fingers. These symptoms may be mild at first and worsen over time.
Vibration-related injuries aren’t always easy for doctors to diagnose, because individuals may complain of some symptoms — such as joint pain — but not other symptoms. So if you suspect that your work is to blame for problems with your hands or fingers, mention that to your doctor.
Minimizing Personal Risk
Work gloves not only protect you from blisters, they act as a buffer between you and machinery, reducing the amount of vibration you absorb. You should also be mindful of how tightly you grip tools, using only as much force as you need to control the tool or machine.
Take frequent breaks, and keep your hands warm. Vibration-induced blanching — or “white finger” — may be triggered by cold temperatures. Nicotine, caffeine and some medications may make white finger worse, but always consult your doctor before discontinuing a medication.
Even though there are no laws in the U.S. that specifically address hand-arm vibration safety in the workplace, your employer is obligated to accommodate you, if you make a reasonable request for something that makes your job safer. If you consistently complain about discomfort while working and your employer does nothing to help you, you may be able to file for Workers’ Compensation or sue for damages.
If the machinery you use puts excessive stress on your hands, you could ask for vibration mounts to minimize your risk of overuse injury. Most employers are willing to pay for improvements that make the work environment more comfortable, because discomfort or pain on the job has a negative impact on productivity. In some factory settings, large machinery may create disturbing amounts of vibration that affect many people in the immediate vicinity. A shock-absorbing rubber mat can help mitigate the reach and impact of such vibrations.
Even if you use a jackhammer every day, you may not necessarily develop a vibration-related injury. But do what you can to minimize your risk now, to prevent long-term consequences.