Lancashire County Council highways staff left finding everyday tasks "difficult or impossible" because of vibration injury
The authority has been fined £50,000 and ordered to pay just over £10,000 in costs following an admission that it breached health and safety legislation.
It comes after 15 County Hall employees were diagnosed with Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) - and in the wake of a damning assessment by the health and safety regulator, which concluded that the cases could have been prevented by better working practices.
The condition is caused by regular use of vibrating hand-held tools - such as the pneumatic drills deployed during road repairs - over a prolonged period of time.
It leads to usually irreversible problems, including numbness in the fingers, ‘white finger’ - known as Raynaud's Syndrome, which is triggered by cold temperatures - and general aches and pains in the hands and lower arms.
Sufferers can also develop a poor grip, meaning it becomes challenging to do anything requiring fine motor skills, like fastening buttons or handling coins.
In the case of the affected county council staff, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says that they now have “nerve damage to the hands and arms, making everyday tasks and leisure activities difficult or impossible”.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands that at least some of the workers are planning to seek compenation from the authoritry.
In a case at Manchester Magistrates' Court - brought by the HSE - it was revealed that Lancashire County Council had submitted a report to the regulator in February 2019 after one of its staff was diagnosed with HAVS.
The HSE served an improvement notice on the authority in July that year, which required County Hall to improve its controls in relation to preventing the condition. However, a further 14 cases were later discovered and reported - only four of which were flagged up within the required timeframe for doing so.
An investigation by the HSE found that there had been “insufficient supervision and monitoring by the council to ensure that operatives accurately recorded their levels of exposure to vibration”.
The regulator also discovered that health surveillance records had not been acted upon promptly in order to reduce or eradicate exposure levels once symptoms were reported by staff.
The HSE concluded that risk assessments were “not adequate” for controlling the degree to which employees operating certain pieces of kit were exposed to vibration and that “practices had not been implemented to prevent overexposure”.
Had such precautions been in place, the 15 HAVS cases identified could have been prevented, the HSE said.
Speaking after the court hearing, HSE inspector Jennifer French said that HAVS can be “a serious and sometimes disabling condition [which] is irreversible”.
She added: “All employers have a duty to provide effective measures to ensure the health of their staff are not seriously or permanently harmed by the work they are asked to do. HSE is committed to thoroughly investigating companies who do not comply with their duties and will prosecute if necessary.”
Responding to the outcome of the case, Lancashire County Council’s director of highways and transport, Phil Durnell, said that the safety of the authority’s employees “is of the utmost importance”.
“We have conducted a full review of our procedures relating to the control of vibration and we have implemented new procedures and technology to safeguard employees and to reduce any exposure to the lowest practicable level."
The HSE recommends alternative equipment and processes that could be used by road maintenance staff in order to reduce their risk of developing HAVS.
According to the website, Patient, stopping working with vibrating tools altogether can prevent mild HAVS symptoms from getting any worse. After the initial onset of the problem, numbness in the fingers may come and go and be experienced only in the very tips of the digits.
However, the loss of sensation can eventually extend along the entire length of the fingers and ultimately become permanent.