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Good vibrations?

The fight to improve safety on site never ends, but two big contractors are bringing in new systems to make things better for their operatives, as Margo Cole reports.

According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), there are 3,000 new claims every year for Industrial Injury Disablement Benefit by people suffering symptoms related to Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) - mainly vibration white finger and vibration-related carpal tunnel syndrome. And a quick look at the internet reveals plenty of law firms willing to chase compensation on behalf of workers suffering these symptoms, indicating that this is not just a health and safety issue for employers, but, potentially, a serious financial issue as well.

The HSE says that nearly two million people are at risk from HAVS in the UK, with a considerable proportion of these being in the construction industry. Of the new cases identified each year, one third are thought to be construction workers who regularly use tools like jack hammers, concrete breakers and pokers, sanders, grinders, disc cutters and scabblers.

Legislation was brought into effect in the UK in 2005 to try to reduce cases of HAVS, in the form of the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations. These regulations require employers to assess the vibration risk to all employees, decide if they are likely to be exposed above acceptable daily levels and, if they are, to introduce controls to eliminate risk or reduce exposure to as low a level as is reasonably practicable. They also have to provide regular health checks for anyone who is at risk, and provide information and training to employees on the health risks of HAVS.

Acceptable levels are identified by the exposure action value (EAV) - a daily amount of vibration exposure above which employers are required to take action – and the exposure limit value (ELV), the maximum amount of vibration anyone can safely be exposed to on a single day. Tables available from the HSE show how to calculate if someone is close to either of these levels, using a combination of the vibration rating of the tool and the number of hours they use that tool.

To enable these calculations to be made, site workers usually fill in paperwork at the end of every day saying how many hours they have spent on different tools. Contractors’ health and safety managers then combine these with the vibration ratings each tool is given by the manufacturer to calculate the total vibration exposure for each worker for that day.

This system is far from perfect: relying on the operatives to remember how long they spent on each tool is bound to lead to inaccuracies; tools may deteriorate over time, making them vibrate more than their rating indicates; and, even if the calculations are accurate, they are only done after the event, when damage may already have been done.In the three years since the regulations were introduced, road construction and maintenance specialist Tarmac National Contracting has been working hard to eliminate HAVS completely, including spending £100,000 on new low vibration hand tools and working with plant manufacturer JCB to adapt its Streetmaster backhoe so it can be used as an alternative to traditional jackhammers.

“There’s been a significant spend on finding better equipment,” explains the company’s national plant manager Steve Wragg. “The Streetmasters alone mean that 80% of hand held breaking can now be done by machine. But in the end it still comes down to what is happening when people are using hand tools.”

Soon after the regulations came into force, Tarmac got together with Reactec, an Edinburgh-based company that specialises in solutions to reduce vibration, to develop a system that could record vibration in real time and let workers know when they are reaching their daily limit.

The company is now rolling out the HAV-meter to all its 900 operatives who use vibration equipment.

The three-part system consists of a base station, the HAV-meter itself, and a tool tag. When an operative wants to use a piece of vibration equipment, they swipe an identity card through the base station unit, which activates one of the HAV-meters that are linked to it. This unit will then collect information about the level and duration of vibration that the operative is exposed to every time they use the hand tool, by locking onto the brightly coloured plastic tool tag that is bonded to the tool.

The meter itself flashes green while exposure levels are low, and then flashes amber once the operative reaches the EAV. If the operative gets to the ELV, the unit will flash red.All the time a tool is being used, the meter calculates vibration exposure in the form of points, with 100 being the equivalent of the EAV and 200 the ELV. The operatives can check their points score at any time on a screen on the meter, so they can swap tasks with another member of their team if they are starting to get near the daily limit. They can move their meter from tool to tool, getting a cumulative score for the day, then put the meter back into the base station at the end of the shift. Information from all the meters can be downloaded onto a standard SD memory card, like those used in mobile phones and digital cameras.

The system’s inventor, Reactec managing director Mark-Paul Buckingham, compares it to the radiation badges worn by workers in the nuclear sector.

But for Tarmac, the benefit is not just the immediacy of operatives knowing their vibration exposure, but the information that they can get from the system. The meters record the actual vibration levels of every piece of kit, so the company can see which tools are causing the most damage, rather than relying on information from the manufacturers. Tarmac can also plan workload more accurately, knowing how long an operative can use each tool safely.

Reactec and Tarmac National Contracting have been trialling the system in Scotland, including on the contractor’s tough Forth Road Bridge refurbishment, where operatives are using hand tools to break out the road surface on top of the steel deck. “It’s been amazing to have the opportunity to get it into the field straight away,” says Buckingham. “We always felt that the quicker we could break it, the sooner we’d be able to learn.”

With the tests now complete, Reactec is confident it has come up with something that is virtually indestructible, and certainly able to cope with the rough and tumble of construction sites. The company has invested £1M to develop the system, and the next stop is selling it in to the rest of the industry. Balfour Beatty, Morgan Est and Amec are already showing an interest.

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