What are the health effects of exposure to vibration?
There are two types of vibration: Whole Body Vibration (WBV) and Hand-Arm Vibration (HAV).
WHOLE BODY VIBRATION (WBV) caused by poorly designed or poorly maintained vehicles, platforms or machinery amy cause or exacerbate other health effects such as:
Lower back pain (damage to vertebrae and discs, ligaments loosened from shaking)
Varicose veins/heart conditions (variation in blood pressure from vibration);
Stomach and digestive conditions;
respiratory, endocrine and metabolic changes;
impairment of vision, balance or both;
- reproductive organ damage.
The longer a worker is exposed to WBV, the greater the risk of health effects and muscular disorders.
Alarmingly, recent (2020) Swedish research has concluded that women exposed to WBV at or above the European action limit of 0.5 m/s2 (mainly truck drivers, forklift and heavy machine operators) working full time had an increased risk of both preeclampsia, gestational hypertension and gestational diabetes.
The researchers studied the Fetal Air Pollution Exposure cohort, formed by merging multiple Swedish, national registers containing information on occupation during pregnancy and diagnosis codes. It includes all working women who gave birth between 1994 and 2014 (over 1 million). They derived WBV exposure from a job-exposure matrix, and divided into exposure categories. The aim was to assess whether occupational WBV exposure during pregnancy is associated with pregnancy complications.
They found that among women working full time there were increased risks of all pregnancy complications in the highest exposure group (≥0.5 m/s2), compared with the lowest. Exposed women (mainly truck drivers, forklift and heavy machine operators) working full time had an increased risk of both preeclampsia, gestational hypertension and gestational diabetes. However, there were no clear associations for part-time workers. The researchers said the results are alarming, as the associations were apparent below the current exposure limit value set by the European Union. They said that women should not be exposed to WBV at/above the action limit value of 0.5 m/s2 (European directive) continuously through pregnancy. However, these results need further confirmation.
In terms of policy implications, the researchers said that the results are likely to lay the foundation of future risk assessment of pregnant women exposed to whole-body vibrations. If confirmed by others, they said the results indicate that women should not be continuously exposed to whole-body vibrations throughout pregnancy, which supports development of policies for reassignment or pregnancy allowance for at least part of the pregnancy. It is concerning that despite the evidence and standards in other countries, there are NO EXPOSURE STANDARDS for vibration in Australia.
Read more: Helena Skröder, et al. Occupational exposure to whole-body vibrations and pregnancy complications: a nationwide cohort study in Sweden (Full text) Occupational and Environmental Medicine Online first June 2020
HAND-ARM VIBRATION (HAV) long term exposure from using hand held tools such as pneumatic tools (eg concrete breakers), chainsaws, grinders etc, causes a range of conditions and diseases, including:
White finger (also known as "dead finger" ) - damage to hands causing whiteness and pain in the fingers;
Carpel tunnel syndrome (and other symptoms similar to occupational overuse syndrome);
Sensory nerve damage;
Muscle and joint damage in the hands and arms (eg 'tennis elbow')
These conditions and diseases can have very serious consequences for people. The effects can be permanently disabling even after a few years of uncontrolled exposure.
Damage to the body from exposure to vibration depends on:
Length of exposure time;
Frequency (rate at which the surface or tool vibrates, measured in vibrations per second or Hertz-Hz);
Amplitude (the size of the vibration). Amplitude can measure acceleration, speed or distance covered.
Extent of problem in Australia
In 2008, National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance (NHEWS) gathered self-reported data on exposure of Australian workers to vibration, and data on the provision of control measures for vibration in the workplace.
The aims of the survey were to describe patterns of exposure to vibration in conjunction with patters of vibration control provisions with respect to industry, occupation and other relevant demographic and employment variables.
Results of the survey are used in the Vibration exposure and the provision of vibration control measures in Australian Workplaces report (2010) to make recommendations, where possible, for development of work health and safety and workers' compensation policy and to provide researchers with clear and constructive directions for future research.
The analyses in the report focus on the five national priority industries: manufacturing, transport & storage; construction, agriculture, forestry and fishing and health and community services.
The main findings of the report were:
- Approximately 24% of Australian workers were exposed to vibration in their workplace.
- Young workers were more likely to report vibration exposure than older workers.
- The industries where workers had the highest likelihood of reporting exposure to vibration were Agriculture, forestry and fishing, Transport and storage and Construction.
- The occupations in which workers had the highest likelihood of reporting exposure to vibration were Machinery operators and drivers, Technicians and trades workers and Labourers.
- 43% of vibration-exposed workers were exposed to hand-arm vibration only, 38% were exposed to whole body vibration only and 17% were exposed to both hand-arm and whole body vibration.
- 41% of vibration-exposed workers reported they were exposed for up to a quarter of their time at work, while 21% reported they were exposed for between a quarter and half of their time at work, 15% reported they were exposed for between half and three quarters of their time at work, and 24% reported they were exposed for more than three quarters of their time at work.
- 23% of vibration-exposed workers reported that none of the surveyed control measures were provided in their workplace. For information on the controls which should be implemented, see Vibration - Action Plan.
- Only 27% of vibration-exposed workers reported they received training.
- Large percentages of vibration-exposed workers in smaller workplaces reported they were not provided with any vibration control measures.
The report can be downloaded in either word or pdf format from this page of the Safe Work Australia website.
One of the recommendations of the report was to investigate the European Union directives related to vibration be when considering future work health and safety regulatory policy development for vibration.
In 2012, Safe Work Australia published the report Implementation and Effectiveness of the European Directive relating to Vibration in the Workplace - in which the requirements and effectiveness of the Directive as implemented in the UK. It considers whether adoption of similar regulatory framework could be appropriate for Australia. It also provides a summary of the evidence for the health effects resulting from exposure to vibration and the identified gaps in vibration health effects knowledge.
Last amended June 2020