Whole body vibration: understanding the risks

Whole body vibration: understanding the risks

Often a misunderstood workplace risk, whole body vibration can cause long-term health issues if not identified properly. Read about potential risks and how employers can limit their workers’ exposure.

Whole body vibration (WBV) is probably the most misunderstood risk that an occupational health advisor will encounter when visiting employees in certain industries.

The name itself can be confusing; whilst it is technically correct, employers often believe it is associated with the same risks factors as for hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS). This is not helped by WBV being bundled with HAVS legislation as part of The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 and similar documentation and measurements.

Dispelling whole body vibration myths
Employees and employers alike often believe that it is related to, for example, engine vibration acting on parts of the body in a similar way powered tools causing HAVS.

The risk is, primarily one of driving vehicles over uneven surfaces, causing the occupants to bounce up and down and side to side. When the practitioner explains that it might be better understood if it was called ‘jiggling up and down syndrome’, it then becomes clear that the risks and effects are totally different to hand transmitted vibration, despite the similar sounding name and terminology used.

The predominant health effect is that of musculoskeletal injury to those bones and joints, particularly in the neck and spine, which act as a shock absorber when driving over uneven ground.

In simpler terms, the more the operator bounces up and down, the greater the exposure.

Risks of exposure to whole body vibration
Typical scenarios may include:

  • grass cutting using ride on mowers over uneven ground
  • forklift truck operation where the roadway is broken up and plant operation as part of construction and civil engineering
  • quarrying and open cast mining are other industries commonly associated with WBV injuries.

How to limit exposure
There are several simple steps that can be taken by an employer to limit exposure, which include:

  1. Ensure that workers, supervisors, and managers understand the risks and health effects associated with WBV.
  2. The use of good quality shock absorbing seats that are correctly adjusted for the individual operator.
  3. Limiting speed over uneven ground, particularly by using speed governors (some of which are GPS controlled) and removing incentives for the worker to rush their work (to finish early, for example).
  4. Training more members of the work team to operate equipment to reduce the amount of exposure time that individual operators accrue by spreading the risk amongst more employees.

Employers should understand about the exposure action and limit values related to WBV and understand their obligations regarding limiting exposure.

Employees should be encouraged to report symptoms in a timely fashion and consideration should be given to referring exposed employees to an occupational health provider for assessment, review, and advice on future exposure.

Author: Simon Jukes, Deputy Chief Occupational Health Advisor, MOHS Workplace Health

Is whole body vibration a potential risk for your workforce?
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