What is Vibration White Finger?
Vibration white finger, sometimes known as hand-arm vibration syndrome, is a condition which can affect the nerves, joints and muscles of the upper limbs. It’s most visible symptom is blanching and whiteness in the fingers which is caused by a restriction in blood flow to the hands.
Although you may not experience the symptoms all the time, vibration white finger can have a significant impact on your life making it difficult to pursue work and hobbies outside and leading to a reduction in overall limb strength.
What causes it?
As its name suggests vibration white finger is caused by exposure to vibration and is considered to be an industrial disease. This is because, for most people, exposure to vibration occurs at work through the use of handheld power tools.
You are at risk if you use power tools such as:
• Pneumatic Drills
• Power Drills
• Angle Grinders
• Powered mowers
for more than a few hours a day.
These tools have all been linked with the development of vibration white finger when regularly used for extended periods. Tools with a hammer action are a particularly high risk, with even a very short daily exposure of 15 minutes, could be enough to cause damage.
However, long-term and repetitive use of any handheld or hand-guided power tool may cause the disease to progress.
For these reasons, it is a condition that is often found to develop in those who work in heavy industry where the use of vibratory machinery or tools is widespread. Mining and engineering are two such heavy industries, but occupations such as highway maintenance, gardening and construction can also lead to people developing this condition.
How do I know if I have it?
The symptoms of vibration white finger are varied and can affect individuals very differently depending on the extent of your exposure to vibration. Common signs of vibration white finger include:
• Whiteness spreading from your fingertips downwards – this is known as blanching;
• Whiteness or a vibrant red colouring of the fingers;
• Tingling, numbness and pain in the hands and fingers – this can cause sleep disturbance;
• Throbbing and swelling and a loss of dexterity in the fingers and hands, making it difficult to grip.
These features are often more prominent in colder weather. They are also permanent.
The symptoms of pain and discomfort are unlikely to be present constantly with flare-ups often lasting between 2 and 30 minutes.
If you continue to use tools, however, you are at risk of suffering from a worsening of the condition leading to some of the symptoms becoming persistent – specifically the numbness – making picking up small objects incredibly difficult.
This could affect both your working life (if you require to deal with screws or nails for instance) and your home life, where things such as fastening buttons could prove problematic.
The frequency of the blanching and pain and discomfort could also increase with continued exposure.
I use power tools at work – what should I do?
Vibration white finger is an entirely preventable condition.
While there are steps that you can take to minimise your risks, it is your employer’s duty to put in place measures that will protect you from over-exposure to vibration at work.
The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 places an obligation on employers to consider and identify steps that will eliminate or reduce risks from exposure to vibration so that they can do just that. Specifically, they introduced vibration exposure levels that are deemed ‘safe’ for you.
The first level – the exposure action level (EAL) – indicates the level at which an employer should introduce measures to reduce your levels of vibration exposure and the second – the exposure limit value (ELV) – is the vibration level beyond which no-one should be exposed.
However, it is not enough for an employer to merely keep your level of exposure between these two levels. They must reduce your exposure to vibration to as low as is reasonably practicable.
How does my employer reduce my exposure to vibration?
There are several steps an employer should take to protect you from damaging exposure to vibration at work.
Firstly, they should carry out a risk assessment considering the use of all power tools. Monitoring should be used to establish who uses what tools, and for how long. If the use of power tools by you, or your colleagues, exceeds the EAL or ELV then measures require to be put in place to reduce the risks.
Risk controls can include:
• Finding other ways to carry out the work – thus eliminating the use of handheld power tools completely.
• Selection of the most appropriate tool for the job to ensure that it completes the task in the least time, minimising your exposure to vibration.
• When purchasing new equipment ensuring that they have the lowest vibration levels possible, whilst still being suitable and efficient.
• Considering where and how the tools are being used, and adjusting the workspace to minimise the pressure on hands, wrists and arms.
• Limiting the time that you are exposed by planning work schedules with rotas for the use of these tools, and interspersing their use with time off the tools.
• Considering the protective clothing supplied to you, to ensure warmth when working outside, which helps encourage good circulation.
Information and Training
Having introduced risk reduction measures your employer should also provide you with information about the condition, your risk level, risk factors and how to recognise and report symptoms. You should also be made aware of ways in which you can minimise risks, including being trained on selecting the most effective tools for the job, and how to use them to encourage you to reduce your grip on them.
Finally, your employer should have in place a system which then monitors both the implementation of the control measures and – if they know you are going to be exposed above the EAL – your health. This will help identify the condition at an early stage and help prevent progression.
Do I have a claim?
If you regularly use hand-held power tools at work and are experiencing any of the symptoms of vibration white finger detailed above, however infrequent, then you may have a claim. The strength of your claim against your employer will depend on many factors, including how robust their risk controls and surveillance measures are.
Also, working out who to sue can be problematic as vibration white finger is caused by exposure over time. If you have changed jobs through the years but used similar tools in each employment, you may have to make a claim against more than one company. Control measures may vary between employers making investigating and proving your claim more difficult. If you have been employed on the tools for your whole working life some of your former employers may no longer be trading. In that instance, a claim may have to be directed against their insurance company.
When should I seek legal advice?
Given the potential complexities involved in making a claim, as soon as you become aware that you may have developed vibration white finger, you should consult a solicitor. They can help you identify who to make a claim against, can investigate exposure levels, and risk controls and assess what parts of your life have been affected by it.
Depending on the severity of your condition and whether it has had an impact on your ability to work and pursue leisure activities, a claim for vibration white finger can have a considerable variation in value. Expert reports may be needed to assist in assessing your claims worth.
A solicitor experienced in dealing with vibration white finger claims will be able to guide you through this process.