Dangers of low level vibration
A low level vibration case, which should have been a straightforward claim for compensation, was so hard fought by the defendant that they appeared to be treating it as a test case. Judith Gledhill, head of personal injury at Thompsons, explains.
Glynn Coward worked for Wakefield MDC as a garage mechanic. He started to notice tingling in his fingers when he was riding his scooter in 2001. A year later he had developed pins and needles in all four fingers of both hands and was waking at night due to the discomfort. His fingers turned white in the cold and warming them up could be very painful.
His GP prescribed a course of physiotherapy and painkillers, but did not advise that the symptoms could be work-related.
Mr Coward had been employed in the Wakefield Metropolitan District Council Transport Service Unit as a garage mechanic since 1991, working mainly on HGVs and vans as part of a team of five. He used many different hand-held vibratory tools including impact wrenches and air guns to remove wheel nuts, air saws for cutting bolts and steel as well as using grinders, drills and sanders.
Although the tools changed constantly according to the job he had to do, he used these tools on and off throughout the day. For example, when carrying out a brake service on an HGV he would have to loosen all the wheel nuts using a one-inch impact wrench.
In summer 2002 he was asked to complete a hand arm vibration screening questionnaire and was sent by his employer’s occupational health department for a medical examination. He was not told that he was suffering from a work-related condition and did not receive any advice about restricting his use of vibrating tools or rotating his duties in the work place.
In 2003, after nerve conduction studies arranged by his GP, he was diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Shortly after this he was told that he also had vibration white finger and that he would have to have an operation for the carpal tunnel syndrome.
He eventually underwent two operations – one on his right wrist and the second on his left a few months later.
It was not however until 2004/2005 that the impact wrenches he had been using were replaced with newer impact wrenches – which gave off reduced levels of vibration – and anti vibration gloves. In addition, his employers decided to introduce a system of job rotation.
Thompsons was instructed by UNISON on behalf of Mr Coward and submitted a claim for compensation for him. Expert engineering evidence was obtained on the likely vibration exposure experienced by him.
The expert instructed by Mr Coward concluded that he would have been exposed to vibration levels of between 1.9m/s2 (metres per second per second – a measurement of acceleration) and, on occasions, may have exceeded 2.8m/s2.
The expert instructed by the defendant however indicated that, in his opinion, the claimant would not have been regularly exposed to vibration levels over 2.8m/s2 averaged over an eight-hour day – A(8).
Why is the level of 1.0m/s2 and 2.8m/s2 important? In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive confirmed, in 1994, that an “action level” of 2.8m/s2 was the appropriate level for action.
For exposure above this action level, the HSE indicated that an employer should instigate vibration exposure reduction measures, such as rotation of work, investigation of alternative methods of work, replacement of high vibration tasks and health surveillance.
However, in 1987 a British Standard was published which indicated that there was evidence to suggest that exposure to vibration below the level of 2.8m/s2 could cause symptoms in a proportion of the population.
But it was stated that this action level should not be regarded as a completely safe level.
Indeed, within the British Standard there was comment that 10 per cent of those exposed to vibration would be expected to show signs of finger blanching after 16 years exposure at a daily level of 1.4m/s2 A(8).
In view of this, the expert instructed by Mr Coward confirmed that, even though the exposure to vibration might fall below the old action level of 2.8m/s2, the employer still had a duty of care for exposure below that level.
Within the British Standard, the expert noted, symptoms do not usually occur if the daily exposed amount of vibration is below 1m/s2 A(8). This is generally known as the “threshold level”. It is recognised that, where a worker is exposed to vibration below the old action level of 2.8m/s2 but above the threshold level of 1m/s2, that the employer should take action.
An engineering report prepared jointly by the engineering expert for the defendant and the expert appointed on behalf of Mr Coward agreed that Mr Coward’s average daily vibration exposure would have regularly exceeded 1m/s2 A(8) (the threshold level). As such, there was a foreseeable risk that he would develop an injury as a consequence of his use of vibrating tools.
As a result, the engineers agreed that, in view of the fact that Mr Coward was exposed to a foreseeable risk of injury, his employer should have provided him with training and information, including information about the symptoms of hand arm vibration syndrome (including carpal tunnel syndrome and vibration white finger), the need to report those symptoms to the employer, the way the symptoms should be reported and how vibration exposure can be reduced.
The defendants also disputed that Mr Coward’s carpal tunnel syndrome had been caused by his use of vibrating tools, despite the fact that the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council confirmed that carpal tunnel syndrome should be regarded as a prescribed industrial disease when it occurs in those who were exposed to hand transmitted vibration.
The defendants indicated that, in view of the relatively potential low level of the vibration exposure, they were treating this case as very much a “test” case. A number of other claims for compensation were stayed pending the outcome of Mr Coward’s claim. The case was listed for trial but, only a matter of weeks before it, the defendants offered to settle the case.
Employers cannot rely on the old action level of 2.8m/s2 (now 2.5m/s2) to defend themselves against a claim for compensation.
It is quite clear that, where a worker is exposed to vibration levels in excess of 1m/s2, an employer has a duty to advise employees about the potential risks of developing vibration white finger or other symptoms of hand arm vibration syndrome, to report the development of symptoms and to advise them of how to reduce exposure by means of the use of hand tools as opposed to vibrating tools and rotation of tasks as far as possible.
If employers fail to do this and their employees suffer symptoms as a result, then they are likely to face further claims for compensation.