Health board fined £160,000 after employees diagnosed with potentially painful arm condition

A Welsh health board has been fined £160,000 after three employees were diagnosed with Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS).

Employees using tools such as strimmers have been affected by the condition
Employees using tools such as strimmers have been affected by the condition

Powys Teaching Health Board required its employees to routinely operate handheld power tools such as lawnmowers, strimmers and hedge cutters, without carrying out an assessment of the risks from exposure to vibration.

Hand-arm vibration can cause a permanent and painful numbness and tingling in the hands and arms, also painful joints and muscle weakening. There is also evidence that it may cause carpel tunnel syndrome.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found there was no monitoring, or any estimate of exposure to vibration, even though employees, particularly during the summer months, operated handheld power tools for several hours a day.

It also found the health board had failed to properly assess the levels of exposure to its employees and that information, instruction and training given to staff was limited. Furthermore, it uncovered how requests from its own occupational health department to conduct a risk assessment had been ignored.

The lack of monitoring, assessment, training and health surveillance has allowed employees to operate handheld power tools for a significant period, in some cases several decades, without having the necessary measures in place to reduce the risk. This led to three employees being diagnosed with Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome.

Powys Teaching Health Board based at Bronllys Hospital, Bronllys, Powys, pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. They were fined £160,000 and ordered to pay costs of £5,599 at Wrexham Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Joe Boast said: “This was a case of the health board completely failing to grasp the importance of managing its staff’s exposure to vibration while using handheld power tools.

“Employers should conduct a full assessment of the vibration magnitude and exposure duration, before reviewing whether employees are at risk. There is a simple online calculator to help employers complete this process.

"If the health board had followed the free guidance, they would not have exposed employees to risk and possibly have prevented the ill health that has been suffered.”

The chief executive of Powys Teaching Health Board, Carol Shillabeer

Carol Shillabeer, Chief Executive of Powys Teaching Health Board, said: “Powys Teaching Health Board fully accepts today’s verdict and we apologise to affected staff and their families. We have ensured that learning has been put into effect, and we have made crucial improvements to prevent such events from happening again.

“We have a strong commitment to the health, safety and wellbeing and hope the improvements we have made provide reassurance to staff and to the public.”

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