FM - the hidden threat to our workforce

FMs put wellness and the protection of the workforce right at the top of the agenda. So why, asks a new report, is no progress being made on the UK’s highest reported workplace disease: hand arm vibration syndrome?

2.7 million people work in construction-related industries in the UK – many of them as part of the FM sector, maintaining our built environment. There are also 90,000 groundworkers helping to shape our outside spaces. Now a new report, The Hidden Threat, by journalist Paul Wilkinson, shines a light on the risks they face in their daily work.

Big numbers of people should not necessarily mean big risks. But the HSE says that two million people are currently at risk of developing Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome as a consequence of daily power tool use. Sometimes dismissed as ‘white finger,’ HAVS, in fact, frequently means life-changing consequences for those impacted – they are unable to continue to work in current roles or carry out simple tasks such as picking up a cup or doing up a zip. The condition is irreversible.

Most frighteningly, although regulations on managing the risk were introduced in 2005 – and most FMs will be familiar with the risk assessments required – it remains the highest reported industrial disease, with no reduction in reported incidents in the last five years. More big numbers: 300,000 people are currently suffering the advanced stages of the disease; one in ten who operate at what is called the ‘Exposure Action Level’ will still contract the disease within ten years according to the HSE. It accounts for 46% of all RIDDOR notifications.

The fact remains: while we talk about health and safety, protecting our workforce and promoting their well-being, HAVS is a hidden threat to many.

A cost to victims…
Alan Finley is a sufferer: “I would wake up in the middle of the night with cramps. It would be as if you had been lying on your hands and they would go numb. Even if I picked up a drill to do things around the house, I felt the tingling and would be in constant pain.”

Finley is fortunate that he has become a manager at his employer and no longer uses tools, but doctors still say he needs an operation for carpal tunnel syndrome. “I’m lucky that I’ve never been out of work, but I know people who have, and it has had a big impact on them,” he says.

And a cost to organisations…
There is a cost to humans but there is also a cost to organisations. There has been a 300% rise in financial penalties relating to HAVs fines since new sentencing guidelines were introduced in 2016. Ian Macalister, partner at law firm DWF, says HAVS claims are a “significant and expensive feature of the claims environment”. He cites a recent case affecting a relatively young man who was otherwise unskilled and unable to pursue a career that involved handheld vibrating devices, which resulted in a six figure award. Over 2017 – 2018 the average fine was £37,000 and there was a 100% conviction rate. The HSE says that for every £1 recovered through insurance, HAVS claims cost a company £10 in uninsured costs such as legal fees, sick pay and employee time.

What’s not working?
So, is it a case that guidelines on regulations just aren’t fit for purpose? And why, given the scale of the issue, is industry, including FM, not talking more about the problem?

Firstly, says Wilkinson’s report, symptoms can take from six months to ten years to appear – so the issue is not necessarily front of mind.

Secondly, conventional risk assessments apply a ‘one size fits all’ approach – paper-based logs of activity combined with tool manufacturers’ data. However, the exposure risk varies hugely between individuals: we use them differently and tools vary widely in performance with age, condition and the job they are used for. One study showed that traditional assessments can result in under-estimation of vibration exposure by up to 76%. Another study of 14 workers conducting a maintenance task showed that five exceeded the traditional risk assessment which had been undertaken – one individual had an exposure risk more than six times that of his colleagues.

Health, safety and environment consultant Harry Gardner says: “It is a huge problem and people don’t appreciate or understand it.”

So what to do?
As with so many other areas of FM, technology may provide an answer. At National Express, Francis Mullalley, head of service support in the West Midlands, says the use of wearable technology providing real-time analytics enables managers to identify any potential problems affecting individuals early and act to prevent these becoming serious. At 14 sites, National Express is able to rotate workers so that there is no over-exposure, has identified tools that are not functioning correctly and protects those with HAVs symptoms from earlier in their careers with controls to make sure their injuries don’t worsen.

One user describes it as “just like a Fitbit”, saying “I challenge anyone to work this out using a spreadsheet or a piece of paper.”

In our pursuit to protect our workforce in every area of our operations, we can no longer ignore the hidden threat of HAVS. It is time to go above and beyond in this fight. Who’s putting their hands up for action?

To download the report by leading journalist, BIM expert and collaborative technology consultant Paul Wilkinson, The Hidden Threat, click here.

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