Article Text


Prevalence and pattern of occupational exposure to whole body vibration in Great Britain: findings from a national survey
  1. Keith T Palmera,
  2. Michael J Griffinb,
  3. Holly Bendalla,
  4. Brian Pannetta,
  5. David Coggona
  1. aMRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit, Community Clinical Sciences, University of Southampton, UK, bInstitute of Sound and Vibration Research, University of Southampton, UK
  1. Dr Keith Palmer, MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit, Southampton General Hospital, Southampton SO16 6YD, UK emailktp{at}


OBJECTIVES To estimate the number of workers in Great Britain with significant occupational exposure to whole body vibration (WBV) and to identify the common sources of exposure and the occupations and industries where such exposures arise.

METHODS A postal questionnaire was posted to a random community sample of 22 194 men and women of working age. Among other things, the questionnaire asked about exposure to WBV in the past week, including occupational and common non-occupational sources. Responses were assessed by occupation and industry, and national prevalence estimates were derived from census information. Estimates were also made of the average estimated daily personal dose of vibration (eVDV).

RESULTS From the 12 907 responses it was estimated that 7.2 million men and 1.8 million women in Great Britain are exposed to WBV at work in a 1 week period if the occupational use of cars, vans, buses, trains, and motor cycles is included within the definition of exposure. The eVDV of >374 000 men and 9000 women was estimated to exceed a proposed British Standard action level of 15 ms-1.75. Occupations in which the estimated exposures most often exceeded 15 ms-1.75 included forklift truck and mechanical truck drivers, farm owners and managers, farm workers, and drivers of road goods vehicles. These occupations also contributed the largest estimated numbers of workers in Great Britain with such levels of exposure. The highest estimated median occupational eVDVs were found in forklift truck drivers, drivers of road goods vehicles, bus and coach drivers, and technical and wholesale sales representatives, among whom a greater contribution to total dose was received from occupational exposures than from non-occupational ones; but in many other occupations the reverse applied. The most common sources of occupational exposure to WBV are cars, vans, forklift trucks, lorries, tractors, buses, and loaders.

CONCLUSIONS Exposure to whole body vibration is common, but only a small proportion of exposures exceed the action level proposed in British standards, and in many occupations, non-occupational sources are more important than those at work. The commonest occupational sources of WBV and occupations with particularly high exposures have been identified, providing a basis for targeting future control activities.

  • whole body vibration
  • population
  • prevalence
  • exposure

Statistics from

Exposure to whole body vibration (WBV) arises in workers who operate tractors, excavators, bulldozers, forklift trucks, armoured vehicles, lorries, and many other vehicles and machines. Although knowledge is incomplete, a growing body of evidence indicates that such exposure to vibration and jolting may cause an increased risk of low back pain.1-6

To control the hazard satisfactorily, there is a need for up to date information on the sources and extent of exposure nationally in different occupational groups, and on the associated morbidity. However, in Britain little relevant information is available. In a large community survey of back pain in 1992, 7% of respondents reported having been drivers of trucks, tractors, diggers, and other industrial vehicles.7 More recently a questionnaire on self reported working conditions was administered to a random sample of 2230 employed adults selected from a national postcode address file.8 Twelve per cent of men (95% confidence interval (95% CI) 9% to 14%) and 1% of women (95% CI 0.5% to 2%) reported that their job sometimes involved sitting or standing on a vibrating machine or vehicle, the prevalence of exposure being highest in farming, fishing and forestry, and in road transport. However, no detailed information was collected on the range and extent of exposures, the relative contribution of occupational and leisure time exposures to total dose, or the effect of such exposures on health.

As part of a large community survey of exposure to vibration, we have collected information on the frequency and extent of exposures to WBV, to allow national estimates of the prevalence and distribution of relevant exposures in Great Britain.


A questionnaire was posted to a sample of 21 201 men and women of working age from the patient lists of 34 general practices and to 993 members of the armed services. The details are reported fully in an accompanying paper.9 In brief, the practices were chosen to give a broad geographical coverage of Great Britain, and the posting was split over a summer and the following winter to assess any seasonal differences in reporting. Members of the armed forces were included in a separate mailing, and were selected at random from central pay records.

The questionnaire included sections on current occupation and industry, and exposures to WBV at work in the previous 7 days (sources and durations of exposure).10 Information on current occupational exposure to WBV was obtained principally from a question about driving or riding any of 26 listed vehicles and machines at work in the past week, but also from a supplementary open question. Information was also collected on the durations of exposure to common everyday sources of WBV (cars, vans, buses, coaches, trains, and motorcycles) during leisure and journeys to and from work in the past week.

The occupations and industries of respondents were coded according to two standardised schemes.11 12 Then, to derive national estimates, prevalence estimates from the sample were directly standardised according to the occupational distribution (or in some analyses the industrial distribution) of the latest (1991) census.9

An equivalent estimated dose of vibration (eVDV) was calculated for each exposed respondent by assigning frequency weighted vibration accelerations (awz values) to each category of vehicles or machines from a reference list and assuming the time dependency proposed in British Standard 6841, 1987.13 Further details are provided in an . Separate estimates were made for occupational and leisure time sources of exposures, enabling the relative importance of occupational and non-occupational exposures to be assessed.

In some cases exposure information was missing, either because a representative awz value could not be assigned or because the duration of exposure to a particular source was not reported. However, where the subjects concerned had been exposed to several sources of WBV, it was often possible to estimate a minimum eVDV.



Altogether, 22 415 subjects were selected for study, but 221 were excluded on their general practitioners' advice (because of bereavement or terminal illness), so that 22 194 questionnaires were posted. Usable responses were obtained from 12 907 subjects, including 9084 people who been at work in the week preceding completion of the questionnaire. The response patterns are described elsewhere.9


A total of 3081 men (56.1% of those in employment) reported having been occupationally exposed to WBV in the week preceding completion of the questionnaire. The prevalence of exposure was similar in those who did and did not require a letter of reminder. The estimated 1 week prevalence of exposure among men of working age in the national population was 35.1% (95% CI 34.3 to 36.0%) overall, or 54.6% (95% CI 53.3 to 55.9%) of those at work.

This corresponded to a total of 7 197 000 (95%CI 7 026 000 to 7 369 000) men exposed. The occupations that contributed the largest estimated numbers of exposed men were: drivers of road goods vehicles (424 000 exposed, 95%CI 412 000 to 436 000), managers and proprietors of service industries (259 000, 95%CI 215 000 to 304 000), metal working, production and maintenance fitters, (246 000 95%CI 216 000 to 275 000), production workers and maintenance managers (229 000 95%CI 190 000 to 269 000), technical and wholesale sales representatives (170 000, 95% CI 149 000 to 191 000), and motor mechanics and auto engineers (174 000, 95%CI 161 000 to 187 000). The industries which contributed the largest estimated numbers of exposed men were: construction (965 000 men exposed, 95%CI 892 000 to 1 038 000), public administration and defence (523 000, 95%CI 473 000 to 573 000), and land transport (494 000, 95%CI 459 000 to 529 000).

Among women, 753 (19.4% of employed women in the sample) had been exposed in the past week, and again the prevalence differed little according to the need or otherwise for a reminder. The 1 week prevalence of exposure in the national population was estimated as 7.9% (95% CI 7.4 to 8.4%) of all women and 17.2% (95% CI 16.1 to 18.3%) of those in work.

The 1 week prevalence of occupational exposure to WBV in women corresponded to an estimated 1 783 000 (95% CI 1 667 000 to 1 899 000) exposed nationally. The occupations with the largest estimated number of exposed women were nurses (116 000 exposed, 95% CI 90 000 to 143 000), sales assistants (108 000, 95% CI 77 000 to 140 000), secretaries, personal assistants, and word processing operators (62 000, 95% CI 37 000 to 88 000), and managers and proprietors in service industries (55 000, 95%CI 29 000 to 82 000). The principal industries in which women were exposed were: health and social work (418 000, 95%CI 361 000 to 474 000) and the retail trade (200 000, 95%CI 155 000 to 245 000).


Table 1 lists the sources of exposure to WBV in the past week that respondents reported most often. Among men, the most common exposures were car (31.5% of respondents), van (17.2%), forklift truck (9.3%), lorry (6.9%), tractor (4.6%), bus (4.3%), and loader (2.7%). The national estimates for these sources indicate that there are >4 000 000 occupational users of cars, >2 000 000 occupational users of vans, and >1 000 000 drivers of forklift trucks. Among women, cars, buses, and vans were the sources of exposure reported most often, with around 1.3 million women journeying in a car while at work during the previous week.

Table 1

Most common occupational sources of exposure to whole body vibration in the past week

In men, lorries were driven for prolonged periods (median time 10 hours in the past week). Other lengthy weekly exposures arose from the use of cars (median time 6 hours) and vans, excavators, off road vehicles, armoured vehicles, and aircraft (median times 4–4.5 hours). In women, the median time for car journeys during work over the past week was 4 hours.


Among 2301 exposed men from the sample who supplied full information, 836 (15.3% of male respondents) indicated exposures calculated to correspond with a daily average >8.5 ms-1.75—the lower boundary of the health guidance caution zone suggested in International Standards Organisation (ISO) 2631, 1997.20 These included 114 men (2.1% of male respondents) whose estimated exposure exceeded the action level of 15 ms-1.75 which is proposed in British standard 6841.19 Among 616 exposed women providing full information, the corresponding figures were 42 (exposed >8.5 ms-1.75) and two (>15 ms-1.75).

Exposure information was incomplete for 780 men and 137 women exposed to WBV (either because of missing durations of exposure or missing data on representative vibration magnitudes), but in workers who were exposed to several sources of WBV, sufficient information was provided to suggest that at least a further 79 men and a further four women had a minimum eVDV >15 ms-1.75. On this basis, the minimum number of men in the national population exceeding this action level was estimated to be at least 374 000 (95% CI 322 000 to 426 000), and the estimated number of women was 9000 (95% CI 2000 to 17 000). Figure 1 presents further details in the form of a cumulative frequency curve of the estimated numbers in the population exceeding different minimum values of eVDV in the past week.

Figure 1

Minimum estimated numbers of men and women in Great Britain whose daily equivalent estimated dose of vibration (eVDV) from all occupational sources in the past week exceeded the values indicated.

The proportion of workers by occupation and industry with significant levels of exposure is illustrated in figures 2 and 3. Among men, the occupations in which minimum estimated dose most often exceeded 15 ms-1.75 were forklift truck and mechanical truck drivers (42%), farm owners and managers (31%), farm workers (27%), non-commissioned officers in the United Kingdom armed forces (11%), and drivers of road goods vehicles (9%). Exposures were most often estimated to exceed 8.5 ms-1.75 in drivers of buses and coaches (95%), forklift trucks (91%), and roads goods vehicles (86%), and in farm owners (78%) and farm workers (76%).

Figure 2

Occupations in which significant exposures to whole body vibration most commonly arose in the past week among employed men.

Figure 3

Industries in which significant exposures to whole body vibration most commonly arose in the past week among employed men.

Table 2 presents estimates of the minimum numbers of men by occupation nationally with exposures >15 ms-1.75 in the past week. Farm owners and managers (52 000), drivers of roads goods vehicles (39 000), and forklift truck drivers (34 000) contributed the greatest numbers by occupation; whereas workers in agriculture (67 000), construction (55 000), and land transport (34 000) contributed most by industry.

Table 2

Minimum prevalence of exposure to whole body vibration (eVDVT >15 ms−1.75) in the past week by occupation and industry in men

Table 3 presents the occupations in men with the highest median occupational estimated dose values. To examine the relative importance of leisure time exposures, the separate contribution to total eVDV from common non-occupational exposures was also estimated. The median eVDV from all sources combined was 6.4 ms-1.75 (interquartile range (IQR) 5.1–8.4). The median leisure time value (5.4 ms-1.75) exceeded the corresponding occupational estimate (2.7 ms-1.75), but among men counted as having occupational exposure to WBV in the past week the total eVDV was higher (median 8.2 ms-1.75, IQR 6.7–10.6), and the median occupational exposure (7.4 ms-1.75) exceeded the median leisure time value (5.4 ms-1.75). The highest median occupational values were found in men driving forklift trucks, buses and coaches, and road goods vehicles, and among technical and wholesale sales representatives. A wide spread of values was estimated for several of these occupations. In women, the median occupational eVDVs were zero, and 92% of respondents were estimated to incur greater exposure outside work than in employment, as were 53% of the women who reported occupational exposure in the past week.

Table 3

Relative contributions of occupational and leisure time exposure to total exposure (eVDVT) in employed men


To determine whether there were seasonal differences in exposure, a comparison was made between the summer time and winter time responses. The overall prevalence of exposure was similar in the two periods (in men 43.1% v 43.6%, and in women 11.7% v 12.9%). Men from the winter posting were somewhat more likely to have an eVDV >15 ms-1.75 (2.6% v 1.6%), but only minor differences were found among women.

Nine per cent of those reporting exposure (280 men and 70 women) stated that the past week had not been typical of their job. Among 141 men who supplied further particulars, 89 indicated that the exposure had been greater than normal, and 52 that it had been less. Among 22 women who provided more information, 13 reported that exposure was normally less and nine said it was usually more.


Our findings indicate that in Great Britain some 9 000 000 people are exposed on a weekly basis to occupational sources of WBV, and highlight the principal occupations in which exposures occur, the major sources of exposure, and the contribution of leisure time activities to total dose of eVDV.

These estimates need to be considered in the light of possible biases and errors. We have argued elsewhere9 that the study sample is likely to have been adequately representative, given the large sample size, the wide geographical distribution and the completeness of family doctors' registers; and, moreover, a process of standardisation was used to compensate for differences in sampling and response rates by occupation; and major response bias seems unlikely, given the similarity of estimates of exposure in people who responded with and without a reminder.

A separate supporting study suggests that workers generally report their exposures to WBV accurately.15 However, a concern particular to the assessment of WBV is that recreational exposures might sometimes be reported as if they were incurred at work. The scope for this error is greatest for common means of private and public transport, as the distinction between using these vehicles at work (occupationally) as compared with journeys to and from work (non-occupationally) may be one that subjects fail to draw. In keeping with this, in our supporting study, a smaller proportion of work time exposures to the car in the past week were confirmed as feasible than for other sources of WBV. To explore this further, a check was performed to determine the occupations of people reporting prolonged work time exposure to cars, buses, coaches, trains, and motor cycles. In most cases the occupations were ones in which such levels of exposure were plausible—for example, chauffeurs, taxi drivers, and bus and train drivers—so large scale overreporting of exposure to these sources is considered unlikely.

None the less, the reporting of exposure to public and private transport vehicles has an important impact on the estimated numbers with exposure. To illustrate the size of effect, three alternative definitions of exposure are presented in table 4, the first encompassing all of the vehicles counted in the survey; the second excluding use of cars; and the third confined solely to industrial vehicles and machines. For comparison, information is provided on the reported prevalence of exposure by occupation in the survey of self reported working conditions.8 In professional managers and education and welfare workers, a substantial proportion of those exposed were classified as such solely on the basis of car use, whereas in other groups, such as farming, fishing and forestry, coal mining, road transport, and material moving and storing, few of those with exposure reported cars as the only source. The most restrictive definition resulted in a much lower estimate of frequency of exposure overall (23% v 56% for all men), and in specific occupational groups—for example, in professional and related support managers, 5% v 51%—but the estimated prevalences of exposure were generally higher than those in the survey of self reported working conditions. That community survey differed in several respects from our own, being based on a smaller (but randomly chosen) sample and on interviews rather than a postal questionnaire. It was also undertaken in a different calendar period; but the difference in findings is most likely to be accounted for by a difference in the questions used. In the survey of self reported working conditions exposure was ascertained by the single question: “Does/did your job ever involve you sitting or standing on a vibrating machine or in a vibrating vehicle?”, by contrast with our own checklist of sources. Respondents may not have considered cars, vans, buses, coaches, trains, and motor cycles to be included within the scope of the earlier survey's question, and may have also had difficulties in identifying or recalling relevant, substantive exposures in the absence of a clearer prompt, in which case our estimates may be more reliable.

Table 4

Exposure to whole body vibration: comparison of this and the survey of self reported working conditions8

Estimates of personal exposure are subject to several sources of error.16 The measurement of awz vibration was based on a subjective choice, and single values were chosen whereas the true magnitude will vary between vehicles that differ in model type, age, source of manufacture, seating, and tyre characteristics; and between similar vehicles which are used for different tasks, or driven over different surfaces, or at different speeds. To test the appropriateness of our choices, sample measurements were made on common sources of exposure,17 and in general the median measured values were close to those assigned (listed in the ). Only weekly exposure information was available, and so an average estimate of dose was made on the assumption that daily durations of exposure were sufficiently similar for the average to predict the likely risk, but in practice the relative importance of daily exposure pattern as a risk factor for back pain is not clear. Finally, estimates of personal doses of exposure relied on self estimates of duration of exposure, but empirical data from our accompanying paper suggest that this is reasonable, given the good general agreement between reported and observed exposure times.15

The data relate to exposures in the previous week, and this might convey a misleading impression of annual exposure in occupations where levels of exposure vary markedly by season. There will also have been people, especially users of cars, trains, buses, and planes, who were exposed unusually in the past week—for example, people attending occasional meetings. However, as estimates of reported exposure were similar in the winter and summer and few people reported their exposures to be unusual, these factors are not thought to have had a large impact.


Occupational exposures to WBV are common in Great Britain, with an estimated 7 200 000 men and 1 800 000 women exposed in a 1 week period. Only a small proportion of exposures exceed the action level (eVDV >15 ms-1.75) proposed in British standards, but this represents an estimated minimum of 374 000 men and 9000 women with such levels of exposure nationally. The commonest occupational sources of WBV have been identified, as have the occupations where particularly high exposures arise—providing a basis for targeting future control activities. However, in many occupations, non-occupational sources make a more important contribution to exposure.


This study was supported by a grant from the Health and Safety Executive. We are grateful to the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Primary Care Rheumatology Society, HM Armed Forces, the general practices that helped with the posting, and the MRC staff who were involved in data handling, particularly Ian Bowes and Vanessa Cox. Paul Brereton and Chris Nelson offered many constructive comments. Denise Gould prepared this manuscript.

derivation of personal vibration exposure levels

An equivalent estimated dose of vibration (eVDV) was calculated by assigning frequency weighted vibration r.m.s. accelerations for vertical vibration on a seat (awz values) to each category of vehicle from a reference list (table 5), and assuming the time dependency proposed in British Standard 6841.13 Hence:

Embedded Image

Table 5

Representative awzvalues assigned to vehicles and machines in the survey


eVDVi = the daily equivalent vibration magnitude for ith vehicle

awzi = the frequency weighted acceleration in the vertical axis for the ith vehicle

ti = total duration of exposure in minutes over the whole week.

And for several machines or vehicles used in combination:

Embedded Image


n = the number of vehicles

eVDVT = the average 8 hour equivalent magnitude (total daily estimated vibration dose value) for alln vehicles combined

eVDVi = the daily equivalent vibration magnitude for ith vehicle.

These expressions assume that the daily durations of exposure in the past week were sufficiently similar on each day for the average to indicate the likely risk.

The awz values have been assembled from a variety of sources including:

1 International Social Security Association (ISSA).Vibration at work. Paris, France: International Section Research, Institut National de Recherche et de Securite (INRS), 1989.

2 Griffin MJ. Handbook of human vibration. London: Academic Press, 1990. (ISBN: 0-12-303040-4.)

3 Internet resources, including National Institute for Working Life Database in Sweden. Located at:

4 Discussion with specialist inspectors from the UK Health and Safety Executive.

For each vehicle several values were usually available, and an attempt was made to select values that appeared appropriate in relation to common expected patterns of use. The range of vibration magnitudes can vary greatly according to the conditions of operation, but the choices made tended generally to accord with median values we have recently measured and reported.17


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