Calls for regulations on maximum levels of vibration exposure in Australian workplaces, to meet international standards

Workers in Australian workplaces are exposed to Vibration in many job roles. The two main types of Vibration are Hand Arm vibration, and Whole Body Vibration; HAV being vibration that travels through the hand and arm into the body, and WBV being vibration that starts at the feet or glutes and then travels into the body. Industries like Mining, Construction, Farming, Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries, Trades, and Utilities are hi-risk industries for vibration exposure through hand tools, power tools, machinery and heavy vehicles.

Legislation and Statistics

The EU Vibration Directive 2002 was key in promoting awareness about vibration hazards in the workplace. Vibration reduction initiatives are supported by legislation in the EU, and maximum vibration exposure is limited at a value of 5 m/s2 for HAV, with employers required to take actions to minimize risk and introduce health monitoring at 2.5m/s2

Some Australian Standards such as AS 2763-1988 and AS2670 – 2001 offer information about Hand Arm, as well as Whole Body Vibration and measures of evaluation of exposure, however all major research works and commissioned reports undertaken till date for the region, recommend investigations into a benefit analysis of the adoption of minimum legislative requirements for vibration exposure.

According to one of the few studies commissioned in Australia, the 2008 National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance (NHEWS) survey around 24% of Australian workers were exposed to vibration in the workplace, of which 43% of exposure was to HAV, 38% to WBV, and 17% to both. A key problem identified was the small percentage of workers who were given any training at all and the large number of smaller workplaces that had no control measures in place for Vibration reduction. Some examples of vibration level exposures in Australian mining workplaces as measured by Gary Foster in ‘Assessment of Vibration Exposure in the Mining Industry’ even exceed limits as per EU directives. As a result of these calls, Safework Australia took a significant step forward in 2012 that saw the products of two factsheets outlining a code of practice for both HAV and WBV.

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Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome

Long-term exposure the more common form of vibration HAV, results in a serious condition called Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome, or Vibration white finger often manifesting with a blanching or whitening of the fingers. Symptoms include whiteness, tingling, numbness, muscle fatigue, a loss of grip and very often pain from white finger attacks.

Reducing Risk

Eliminating the cause of vibration or vibration exposure to the worker is the best way of preventing Vibration induced injury. Some ways of doing this could include using non-vibrating tools and machinery to perform the job. Substituting the tool for one with less or reduced vibration, is the next best step. More often than not however, both these options are unavailable. Safety professionals can however reduce the effects of vibration by implementing several alternative control measures. Engineering vibration reducing or dampening measures, to reduce vibration exposure, or regular cleaning, maintenance and replacement of parts and tools to keep equipment and tools functioning smoothly with minimum jerks and jolts.

PPE like gloves provide a barrier between the source of the vibration and the worker, reducing the impact on the hands and arms. Gloves like Ergodyne Proflex 9000 are certified to meet EN 388:2003/ANSI S3.40/ISO 10819-1996/EN420/ standards for anti-vibration, and in addition to reducing the effects of vibration, helps loosen incorrect and tight gripping of tools; another factor contributing to HAVS. Further to providing correct PPE, worker training about the long-term effects of vibration exposure and correct tool gripping practices, tool vibration information, and work schedules tailored to minimize the harmful effects of vibration.