OBJECTIVES: To survey the prevalence and severity of hand-arm vibration syndrome symptoms (HAVS), and to estimate past and current exposure to hand held vibrating tools in a sample of gas distribution operatives breaking and re-instating road surfaces. METHODS: 153 gas distribution operatives (participation rate 81%) from three company districts were assessed by an administered questionnaire, a clinical examination, and a simple cold challenge test to the hands. Exposure histories were taken aided by a picture album of past and current tools. Information was obtained from several sources on the likely vibratory characteristics of those tools. Estimates were thus obtained of the frequency of blanching and neurological complaints in operatives, and of their lifetime hours of exposure and lifetime dose of vibration. RESULTS: On average, the sample had spent 16 years in employment involving use of vibratory tools. 24% had symptoms or signs of blanching after use of tools in the industry; 46% had troublesome persistent complaints of paraesthesiae or numbness, and these symptoms extended into the hands or arms in 18% of workers. In 5.9% the distribution of symptoms was suggestive of carpal tunnel syndrome; and of ulnar nerve entrapment in a further 3.9%. The risks of blanching and neurological complaints rose significantly with lifetime hours of use of vibrating tools and lifetime dose of vibration. Symptoms were generally mild and apparent only after a prolonged interval, but there were exceptions, and cases had occurred after lower recent exposures. CONCLUSIONS: It has been suggested that aspects of the gas distribution operative's work mitigate against the risk normally anticipated from use of pneumatic road breaking tools. By contrast our data suggest that symptoms of HAVS do occur, given sufficient exposure, a finding relevant not only to gas supply workers, but also to workers from other industries who break and repair road surfaces.
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