Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment

hand arm vibration syndrome

Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) is a significant occupational health concern that affects workers exposed to vibrating tools and machinery. Understanding HAVS is crucial for maintaining a safe work environment. This article explores what hand arm vibration syndrome is, including its causes, symptoms, prevention, and treatment. It also discusses how the HAVS syndrome affects workers and the safety measures that can be used to improve worker safety.


What is HAVS?

HAVS, also known as vibration white finger (VWF), is a condition that primarily affects workers who regularly use vibrating hand-held tools and equipment, such as power drills, sanders, jackhammers, chainsaws, and more. The constant exposure to vibrations can lead to damage in the blood vessels, nerves, and muscles of the hand, wrist, and arm, resulting in HAVS.

Types of Tools and Equipment Contributing to HAVS

Understanding the causes of hand-arm vibration is key to implementing effective preventive measures. Certain tools are more likely to contribute to the development of HAVS, especially with prolonged use. This includes:


  • Handheld Power Tools - This includes drills, impact wrenches, pneumatic hammers, and chainsaws. These tools are staples in many industrial and construction settings.
  • Heavy Machinery and Equipment - Equipment such as jackhammers, concrete breakers, and sanders, which require physical handling or operation, also pose a significant risk.
  • Precision Tools - Even smaller tools like sanders, polishers, and grinders can contribute to HAVS when used for extended periods or without adequate breaks.
  • Gardening and Landscaping Equipment - Tools used in gardening and landscaping, such as hedge trimmers and brush cutters, also generate vibrations that can lead to HAVS if used frequently over long periods.


How Vibration Affects the Human Body

When using vibrating tools, vibrations are transmitted through the hands and arms. This mechanical energy impacts the body’s tissues and can lead to various biological responses. The vibration frequency, amplitude, and duration are critical factors in how severe the impact can be. High-frequency vibrations affect the body differently than low-frequency vibrations, but both can cause significant damage over time if exposure is not managed properly.

Early Signs and Symptoms of HAVS

Recognizing the early signs of HAVS is crucial for preventing its progression. Initial symptoms often include:

  • Tingling and numbness in the fingers
  • Loss of sensation or a feeling of coldness in the fingertips
  • A slight blanching or whitening of the skin on one or more fingers

Advanced Symptoms and Complications

If HAVS is not detected and managed early, it can progress to more advanced stages. Severe symptoms of hand arm vibration syndrome include persistent cold-induced blanching of the fingers when exposed to relatively cold temperature, as well as severe and continuous numbness and pain in the hands, which can interfere with everyday activities.

Untreated hand arm vibration syndrome also has long-term health consequences, such as permanent damage to the nerves and blood vessels of the arms and hands, reduced hand function and grip strength, chronic pain and discomfort, and even possibly lead to disability.


Why is HAVS Syndrome a Concern?

man with havs syndrome injury

HAVS can have serious consequences for workers' health. HAVS is a complex and multifaceted concern that encompasses not only the immediate health effects on workers but also broader implications for workplace safety, legal compliance, productivity, and long-term well-being. The continuous vibration exposure can cause:

1. Vascular Damage
The most visible symptom of HAVS is vascular damage, where the blood flow to the fingers and hands is severely reduced. This condition is known as vibration-induced white finger (VWF), which can lead to painful finger blanching attacks, particularly in cold weather.

2. Neurological Disorders
Workers experiencing neurological effects due to HAVS often report a loss of sensation and tingling in their fingers, which can progress to severe, chronic pain and numbness. This loss of sensory perception can significantly impair hand function and dexterity, making it difficult or even impossible to perform fine motor tasks that are critical in many industrial roles.

3. Musculoskeletal Problems
Long-term exposure to hand-arm vibration can lead to muscular and joint issues, including muscle weakness and reduced grip strength. Over time, these symptoms can evolve into more serious conditions such as osteoarthritis in the joints of the hand and wrist.

The consequences of HAVS extend beyond individual health concerns to broader economic and operational impacts on businesses. They may face significant costs related to healthcare and compensation for HAVS claims from workers affected by the syndrome. Workers suffering from HAVS may exhibit decreased efficiency and productivity, as the physical discomfort and loss of manual dexterity hinder their performance. To prevent HAVS, companies must also invest in proper training and purchase appropriate anti-vibration equipment and tools. While these are necessary expenses for safety, they represent an upfront cost that businesses need to manage.


Preventing Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS)

If left unchecked and untreated, HAVS can have a significant effect on worker’s health that impacts their day-to-day lives and hinders their ability to work. Preventing Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) requires a proactive approach in the workplace to manage and mitigate exposure to vibrations. Understanding and implementing effective work and machine safety measures can significantly reduce the risk of developing HAVS among workers.

Workplace Safety Measures

Establishing workplace safety measures and protocols is one of the steps to prevent and protect workers from experiencing hand arm vibration syndrome. It is essential to conduct regular risk assessments to identify which tools and processes expose workers to harmful vibrations and evaluate the severity of these exposures.

Ideally, opt for low-vibration tools wherever possible. Manufacturers often provide vibration ratings for their equipment, so choose tools with the lowest vibration levels that still meet work requirements. Whenever possible, conduct trials to compare vibration levels between different hand held vibrating tools under actual working conditions. This helps in selecting the least vibrating tool that is suitable for the job.

Once risks are identified, employers must implement appropriate control measures. These can include providing suitable tools, maintaining equipment to reduce vibration levels, designing work schedules to limit exposure time, and offering personal protective equipment. Employers should offer health surveillance to workers exposed to significant vibration levels to detect and respond to early signs of vibration-related injuries.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Using the right personal protective equipment (PPE) can play a crucial role in reducing the risk of developing Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome. There are several personal protective equipment that can be used against vibration exposure:

  • Anti-Vibration Gloves: These gloves are designed with materials that absorb and dissipate vibration energy. They often contain padded or layered materials in areas most susceptible to vibration, such as the palms and fingers.
  • Vibration-Damping Tool Wraps: While not worn on the body, vibration-damping wraps can be applied to tool handles to reduce the amount of vibration transmitted. These wraps are particularly useful for tools that cannot be operated with gloves.
  • Gel-Padded Wrist Supports: These supports help absorb vibration and reduce the strain on the wrist and forearm, which can be beneficial when using heavy vibrating tools for extended periods.

However, it is important to understand that PPEs should not be relied upon as the sole method of protection against vibration. It is most effective when used as part of a comprehensive approach that includes tool maintenance, work schedule management, and engineering controls. By integrating PPE with other safety measures, workplaces can create a safer environment that minimizes the risk of HAVS.

Work Practices and Ergonomics

Adopting ergonomic work practices is essential in minimizing the risk of developing Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome. These practices not only help reduce vibration exposure but also enhance overall workplace safety and efficiency.

There are tool handling techniques that help minimize vibration exposure. Instead of holding tools tightly, encourage workers to use a lighter grip, just enough to ensure control. This is because tensing up can increase the transmission of vibrations into the arms and hands, increasing the risk of HAVS syndrome. Another factor to consider is to use the proper tool for the job. Specifically, avoid using a larger or more powerful tool than necessary to prevent excessive exposure to higher levels of vibration.

Another effective strategy is to alternate tasks among workers to ensure that no single worker is exposed to vibration for prolonged periods. Aside from that, instruct them to take regular breaks in between to rest the hands and allow blood circulation to normalize.

Aside from tool handling, it is also important to practice ergonomics in the workplace. Teach workers to maintain proper posture while using vibrating tools. Poor posture can exacerbate the strain on muscles and joints, increasing the risk of musculoskeletal disorders along with HAVS. Ergonomic training should include instructions on maintaining neutral positions that align and balance the body correctly. Also, provide workstations that can be adjusted to fit the worker’s height and reach, reducing awkward positions that can lead to increased exposure to vibrations and other ergonomic injuries.

Training and Education

Effective training and education are fundamental to preventing Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) in the workplace. These programs not only equip workers with the necessary skills and knowledge to protect themselves but also foster an environment where safety is a shared responsibility.

Provide comprehensive training sessions that cover all aspects of HAVS, including its causes, symptoms, consequences, and prevention techniques. Training should be mandatory for all new hires and provided as refresher courses annually or whenever new equipment is introduced. Incorporate practical demonstrations on the correct use of tools and equipment. Show how to adjust and maintain tools to minimize vibration levels and demonstrate the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

For a more immersive and effective training experience, use simulations and role-playing exercises to help workers understand the correct ergonomic practices and the importance of regular breaks and task rotation. Distribute informational materials such as flyers, posters, and brochures throughout the workplace. These materials should highlight the risks associated with vibrating tools and the importance of following safety practices.


Managing and Treating HAVS Syndrome

man receiving treatment for havs syndrome

Proper management and treatment of Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) are critical once symptoms have been identified. Early medical intervention can prevent the progression of the condition and alleviate symptoms, helping affected workers maintain their quality of life and continue their professional activities. Workers should seek medical advice if they notice any of the early signs of HAVS. Early diagnosis and treatment can significantly improve the prognosis and prevent irreversible damage:

  • Medications: There are several medications available that can help manage the symptoms of HAVS. Vasodilators, for example, can improve blood flow to the affected areas, helping to relieve the symptoms of vascular disorders associated with HAVS. Pain relievers may also be prescribed to manage discomfort.
  • Thermal Biofeedback: This treatment involves teaching patients to increase their hand temperature through relaxation and visualization techniques. It helps manage the symptoms by improving blood flow and reducing the frequency and severity of white finger episodes.
  • Physical Therapy: Engaging in physical therapy can be beneficial in improving hand function and flexibility. Therapists may use exercises that encourage blood flow and strengthen the muscles of the hands and arms, which can be particularly helpful for those suffering from the musculoskeletal effects of HAVS.
  • Lifestyle Changes: Making lifestyle changes, such as stopping smoking and managing stress, can also help alleviate symptoms. Smoking constricts blood vessels and can worsen symptoms, while stress can exacerbate episodes of finger blanching.


Regulatory and Legal Considerations

Navigating the regulatory and legal aspects of occupational health concerning Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) is crucial for both employers and employees. Here’s an overview of the standards and regulations that address the risks of hand-arm vibration exposure. 

OSHA General Duty Clause Requires employers to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. This includes hazards from vibration exposure.
ISO 5349  Focuses on measuring and evaluating human exposure to hand-transmitted vibration. It provides guidance on how to measure vibration levels and assess their potential to cause harm.
ISO 2631 Deals with the measurement and evaluation of whole-body vibration. It considers the effects of vibration on comfort, performance, and health in different environments, including workplaces.


Understanding these regulations ensures compliance and promotes a safe working environment.


FAQ on Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome

How common is hand arm vibration syndrome?

HAVS is relatively common among workers who frequently use vibrating tools, such as in construction, mining, and manufacturing.

Does HAVS go away?

HAVS can be managed and its progression halted if caught early and exposure is reduced, but symptoms may persist and can
become irreversible without intervention.

Is HAVS a disability?

HAVS can be considered a disability if the symptoms significantly impair a person's ability to perform daily tasks and work activities, depending on the severity.

What causes a vibration feeling in your arm?

A vibration feeling in your arm can be caused by nerve damage, poor circulation, or exposure to vibration from using power tools. It's a key symptom often associated with HAVS.

Is HAVS the same as carpal tunnel?

No, HAVS and carpal tunnel syndrome are different conditions. HAVS affects blood vessels, nerves, and muscles from vibration exposure, while carpal tunnel syndrome is primarily a nerve compression disorder in the wrist.


TRADESAFE is an established and trusted American-based and owned company experts in safety standards. We offer reliable and compliant lockout tagout devices, workplace signs, and other safety supplies designed and engineered to enhance worker safety.

The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.