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HAVS — What It Is and Tips for Prevention

What is HAVS
If you work in the construction industry, you know that hard work comes with a heavy dose of risk. Whether you are working in industrial, building or infrastructure, every day on the job presents 6.5 million construction workers on 252,000 construction sites nationwide with the potential for possible injuries from scaffolding, electrical equipment and accidents. While dangers like falls, electrocutions and heavy, moving objects are obvious risks, construction can pose other hazards that, while nonfatal, are damaging and directly related to work conditions.

Did you know that hand-held and stationary assembly tools can be just as dangerous to your health as heavy lifting and getting caught between materials? It might seem like the least threatening aspect of the job, but too much exposure to vibrating equipment can take its toll on your hands, arms, nerves and long-term functionality. It is called hand-arm vibration syndrome, or HAVS. Of the two million construction workers that handle vibrating tools, it affects 50 percent or more.

So how does HAVS develop, what are the symptoms and HAVS risk assessments and how can you prevent this disorder? We will tell you everything you need to know about the body’s reaction to prolonged vibration exposure.

HAVS affects 50% or more of constructions workers that handle vibrating tools.

What Is HAVS?

Hand-arm vibration syndrome, sometimes referred to as vibration white finger or industrial white finger, is a debilitating neuromuscular disorder that affects the fingers. It is characterized by concentrated pain, tingling, numbness and blanching — or paleness — of the fingers, leading to a weakened grip and difficulty performing regular tasks. HAVS causes poor circulation, nerve damage and muscle weakness, which can sometimes spread to the hands and arms, impairing the victim’s capability of proper movement.

While HAVS can be diagnosed at different stages and manifest in varying levels of severity, the disorder has no technical cure — cases caught early leave some possibility of recovery, but advanced forms of vibration white finger are usually irreversible, persistent and damaging to quality of life, although not fatal.

HAVS occurs in stages beginning with periodical attacks of numbness, tingling and blanching in one or more fingers. If the fingers and condition are unattended and the worker continues to use the same equipment without modifying anything, the attacks will become more persistent and continue long after direct exposure to vibration. Here are how the stages of HAVS generally occur:

  • Mild, intermittent attacks of numbness or tingling in one or more fingers: Numbness and tingling may occur separately or together, and the sensations will mostly affect the fingertips without hindering use of the hands or interfering with activities.
  • Blanching of one or more fingertips: The tips of one or more fingers will appear pale or white for periods of time. Blanching may be accompanied by tingling or numbness, but will subside after a short amount of time and will not interfere with hand performance.
  • Moderate, intermittent attacks of numbness, tingling and blanching in one or more fingers: Attacks become more frequent, more severe and begin to affect more fingers. Numbness, tingling and blanching begin to extend down from the tips of the fingers and may occur in more fingers than before. This stage may begin to affect both work and everyday hand activities.
  • Severe, frequent attacks of tingling, numbness and extensive blanching in multiple fingers: The entirety of most fingers will be affected by frequent attacks affecting sensation, circulation and activities involving the hands.
  • Very severe, persistent tingling, numbness and blanching in most or all fingers: Attacks will be so frequent that they may persist continuously. They will affect the movement and sensation of fingers in work and nonwork activities, severely impacting quality of life.

What Causes Industrial White Finger?

HAVS is caused by prolonged, excessive or repetitive vibration exposure, which characterizes it as a cumulative trauma or repetitive stress condition. Constant and repeated exposure to vibrating tools begins to negatively affect hand and finger functionality by disrupting oxygen supply to the skin and muscle.

At first, periods of vibration trigger vascular spasms and attacks directly after exposure, but repetition over time is what leads to the eventual consistency of the condition. When the hands are frequently, rapidly shaken and the oxygen supply is depleted, the blood vessels in the fingers collapse and the skin and muscle tissue can weaken and die, leading to tingling, numbness and blanching.

Because vibration is the leading risk factor for HAVS, the use of vibrating tools is the most typical cause of industrial white finger. Here are some of the most common power tools that can contribute to the condition:

  • Chainsaws
  • Drills
  • Jackhammers
  • Riveters
  • Grinders
  • Concrete breakers and pokers
  • Buffing machines
  • Impact wrenches
  • Power hammers
  • Polishers
  • Power chisels
  • Sanders

While less common risk factors than these vibrating tools, cigarette smoking, beta blockers and exposure to cold have also been linked to the development of HAVS. Using vibrating power tools in a cold, damp environment puts workers at even more risk for the condition.

Industrial White Finger

Who Is at Risk?

So who can HAVS affect? As previously mentioned, workers across various industries — especially those in cold climates — are at high risk for developing HAVS if their work includes the regular use of power tools. The longer and more frequent the vibration exposure, the higher the likelihood of vibration white finger. These industries have the highest potential for worker development of HAVS:

  • Construction
  • Mining
  • Manufacturing
  • Steel
  • Wood and lumber
  • Metalwork and foundries
  • Farming
  • Maintenance

Whatever your industry, if you regularly use power tools, HAVS is a legitimate concern. You should be aware of the symptoms in order to prevent and control the condition before it becomes too advanced.

Symptoms of Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome

As previously noted, HAVS manifests gradually in a variety of recognizable symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Because it is a cumulative condition, it will only worsen over time if — despite your symptoms — you continue to use vibration tools without modifying your behavior or work conditions. However, HAVS’s progressive nature also means it is possible to catch early and prevent from worsening. The first step to preventing chronic, severe HAVS is recognizing the early symptoms. Here are some warning signs to look out for:

  • Tingling and numbness in the fingertips: The neurological features of HAVS are the most prominent and identifiable symptoms, beginning with a radiating tingling or numbness in the fingertips of one or more fingers. These are a result of early nerve damage from prolonged vibration exposure and will occur occasionally and repeatedly. While it is important to notice these symptoms early, keep in mind that the cause for most concern is when symptoms occur randomly as well as directly after tool use.
  • Loss of feeling: You may experience an inability to feel normally with your fingertips — another indicator of nerve damage. Your sensory perceptions may be momentarily impaired during attacks of tingling and numbness, or the loss of feeling may be more prolonged, which can make fine motor tasks difficult. Experiencing this symptom in even one or two fingers is cause for concern, as the damage will only spread to more fingers or the entire hand if you continue to use tools without moderation.
  • Loss of strength or gripping ability: Nerve damage can affect your whole hand, impacting your strength and affecting your ability to perform everyday tasks. Suddenly, you may find it difficult to grasp or squeeze objects, which means trouble using handles, picking things up and holding on. Your palm muscles, as well as your fingers, will feel weak, making heavy objects hard to carry and small objects, like nails or screws, impossible to grip and pick up.
  • Blanching or paling of fingers: Explaining the “white finger” title in the variable condition names industrial and vibration white finger, HAVS manifests damage in an intermittent or prolonged whitening of one or more fingers. The whitening is a result of a loss of blood circulation due to oxygen deprivation. Fingers can go white all at once or in attacks — especially after exposure to cold conditions and vibration — and be especially cold. Recovering sensation will be painful, and blanching attacks will only become more severe.
  • Pain in hands and wrists: In addition to nerve and blood vessel damage, HAVS can have a negative effect on bones and muscles, leading to persistent pain in the palms and wrists. It can also cause the development of other types of cumulative conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome and cysts. Bone pain in the hands is not necessarily a confirmation of HAVS on its own, but when coinciding with any of the above symptoms, it is likely to be an indicator of progressive stages of the condition.

Experiencing Numbness

When you recognize any of these signs or symptoms, it is important to realize you might be developing HAVS and take the appropriate action to keep the condition from worsening and progressing to more severe stages. Remember, early stages of vibration white finger are manageable and often reversible, but chronic, severe HAVS has no cure. Before your condition becomes unmanageable and affects your quality of life, see what you can do to change it.

Tips for Preventing HAVS

While HAVS can be damaging and debilitating to your hand function and lifestyle, there is an upside — it is cumulative and comes from a specific source, which means you can both control early symptoms and prevent the condition with the right steps. Here are some measures you can take to avoid developing or worsening HAVS:

  • Moderate tool use: First, make sure you are always using the proper tool for the job. Using an unsuitable or non-standard device will make your grip and position more challenging, which can lead to more vibration exposure and greater health risk. Also, when planning jobs, consider using tools with a lower frequency or utilizing methods that can achieve the same effect without vibrating tools. If possible, research and use tools least likely to inflict HAVS damage, including ergonomic options that minimize vibration transference.
  • Maintain tools: Make sure to establish a regular maintenance routine for keeping your tools sharp, functioning and up-to-date. This strategy ensures their performance is optimal and they require less force and vibration. Caring for the tools includes storing them in environments that ensure the grips and handles do not get too cold for workers to initially grip, which is important because low temperatures increase vibration damage to the fingers.
  • Use vibration-minimizing equipment: If possible, attach vibration-isolating handles to the machinery or use anti-vibration dampers and mountings to make use less hazardous to your hands.
  • Take breaks: Vibrating tools and equipment should be used only in short periods to minimize the risk of nerve damage and hand-arm conditions. Workers should take breaks for at least 10 minutes every hour or keep a rotating schedule so one worker is not exposed to the tool for too long.
  • Equip yourself: To protect yourself even further against excessive vibration exposure, wear gloves when operating equipment. Ideally, gloves should be gel-padded and vibration-absorbing. They should cover the fingers for the best protection.
  • Keep your hands warm: Cold and vibration are the worst combination when it comes to the risk of developing HAVS. In addition to other precautions, try to keep your hands warm at all times when operating vibrating equipment. Keep cold exhaust air away from your hands, keep them dry and warm and massage them during breaks to keep circulation flowing well. Proper blood flow will decrease your chances of developing HAVS.
  • Watch your grip: Holding the handles of equipment tightly may seem necessary for keeping control, but be careful — gripping too hard causes your hands to absorb even more shock from vibration exposure. Hold tools carefully, but keep your grip as loose as possible while still maintaining control.
  • Avoid smoking: The use of tobacco is linked to poor circulation, which will increase your hands’ damage from vibration exposure and put you at higher risk for developing HAVS. Using other drugs is also a dangerous risk when it comes to staying safe on the job and keeping blood flow strong — avoid cocaine and methamphetamines completely, and regulate your caffeine intake before work. Keep your body clean so you can apply your best on-the-job performance and have the highest chance of preventing vibration white finger.
  • Stay healthy: Good cardiovascular health means better circulation, and strong bodies are more capable of resisting the shock of vibrating equipment and the stressors it causes. Exercise, eat well, maintain a healthy weight and stay fit.
  • Be aware: All at-risk workers should be properly trained for vibrating-equipment use and adequately educated on the signs and symptoms of HAVS. With the right information, you will adjust your tool use to best prevent HAVS and stay prepared to recognize the early signs should it begin to develop.

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Legal Help for HAVS

Even if you are careful and follow all the necessary steps possible to prevent HAVS, sometimes workplace conditions are out of your control. If HAVS is affecting your life as a result of vibrating workplace equipment, you may be entitled to a claim — and KBG Injury Law can help. To find out more about workers’ compensation for HAVS, contact us today for a free consultation.

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