Last week, while preparing my column, one of the most common work related complaints took centre stage in a management meeting of a world famous British engineering company. The company had been fined by British authorities for violating Britain’s Safety and Health regulations.
The complainant had developed bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome after being exposed to high levels of vibration at the company’s premises, and had reported that they would no longer be capable of continuing, what was thought by management, as a low stress job function.
After an investigation, the court was told that the employee had been operating wet blasting cabinets, used to clean turbine blades cast in the foundry, for up to nine hours a day. The employee had to hold the blades in their hands as they were blasted with water under pressure which exposed the employee to high levels of Hand Arm Vibration.
The court was told that after developing pins and needles and then numbness and pain, the employee reported the symptoms to the line manager and sought treatment from their doctor. In September 2009, the employee was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and was unable to work for around four months. The employee has since had four operations on the hands and still suffers dexterity problems in the right hand and weakness in both wrists.
The investigation found that the company did not properly assess the vibration risks faced by workers using the wet blasting cabinets and no suitable control measures were implemented, such as limiting exposure, or providing alternatives. The employee received no pre-employment screening and was not included in the company’s health surveillance list.
The court said that proper health surveillance was critical to detecting and responding to early signs of damage. The investigation said that the company had failed to take action to prevent damage caused by the vibrating wet blasters; that it failed to provide the employee with health surveillance and then failed to respond when the employee reported ill health.
This eventually led to the employee suffering prolonged unnecessary pain and discomfort, resulting in some permanent damage, thereby affecting the overall quality of the employee’s life.
The employee has since returned to work at the company in a different role that doesn’t involve working with vibrating machinery. The company was fined a total of 60,000 and ordered to pay 18,168 in costs after admitting/being found guilty of a breach of the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005, and a breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. In 2012, it installed an automated system to replace the use of the Vapormatt cabinets.
Management had not prioritised this job function as a high risk task or employees, but complaints of this type are not unique and are in fact are extremely common in all work places in all countries. Almost two million people in Britain work in conditions where they are at risk of developing vibration-related ill health such as Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
A comparative analysis of the Barbadian work environment will reveal that similar conditions and job functions also exist here. The number of employees bringing similar complaints to their personal doctors has been increasing at a significant pace, as the Barbadian work place changes to meet advances in technology and production demands.
Let us take a closer look at Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This condition can affect any person; even casual employees can be affected by this condition, as it falls under the category of Repetitive motion and sustained vibration activities. If the job function continually exposes the employee to sustained vibrations, or a particular action must be repeated over extended periods on a daily basis, then that employee will be exposed to conditions which will lead to the development of symptoms that is specific to Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is a condition affecting the hand and wrist. The carpal tunnel is a space in the wrist surrounded by wrist bones and by a rigid ligament that links the bones together. Typical causes include repetitive hand motions and awkward hand positions. Strong hand gripping and mechanical stress on the palm also contribute.
The tendons of the fingers surround the median nerve. In the carpal tunnel, swelling of the tendons reduces the space in the tunnel and squeezes the median nerve which is softer than the tendons. Pressure on this nerve can injure it.
Prevention of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome may involve redesigning work stations, tools, or the job, and educating workers. Proper work station design reduces awkward wrist positions and minimises the stressful effects of repetitive motions. Regular analysis of the sequence of the tasks must be conducted to determine changes in body position.
This health related work issue falls under the category of Ergonomics; which can be defined as fitting the job to the worker. All workers are not the same size and everyone has limits. Ergonomics aims to design workstations, work processes, equipment, and tools to fit you.
Outside of the discipline itself, the term ergonomics’ is generally used to refer to physical ergonomics as it relates to the workplace (as in for example ergonomic chairs and keyboards). Ergonomics in the workplace has to do largely with the safety of employees, both long and short-term.
Ergonomics can help reduce costs by improving safety. This would decrease the money paid out in workers’ compensation. Over five million workers sustain overextension injuries per year across the United States and Canada. Similar numbers have also been reported for Europe and Asia.
What must also be noted is that not all of the reported injuries were from the manufacturing industry; more than half of the injuries reported were from administrative job functions in which the employee spent the majority of each working day using a computer key board.
Through ergonomics, workplaces can be designed so that workers do not have to overextend themselves and the manufacturing industry could save billions in workers’ compensation. Workplaces may either take the reactive or proactive approach when applying ergonomics practices. Reactive ergonomics is when something needs to be fixed, and corrective action is taken. Proactive ergonomics is the process of seeking areas that could be improved and fixing the issues before they become a large problem.
Problems may be fixed through equipment design, task design, or environmental design. Equipment design changes the actual, physical devices used by people. Task design changes what people do with the equipment. Environmental design changes the environment in which people work, but not the physical equipment they use.
If you are feeling pins and needles in your hands, then you need to do two things — one, consult your doctors to confirm the symptoms and causes; and, two, inform your workplace that the job function is beginning to affect your short-term and long-term health, and that you need a change to the job function before its health effects become permanent.