Getting bad vibes from recycling?

Whole body vibration can cause major health problems to employees using waste vehicles and machinery. Which is why councils should act now to minimise the risk, says Bruce Lornie

As the importance of recycling grows, so does the fleet size and amount of machinery required by local authorities to process materials. In recent years, recycling has become more reliant on automated support in the form of collection vehicles, JCBs and equipment such as crushers and balers. As a result, staff are being exposed to harmful vibrations from vehicles and plant machinery – something which could affect their health in later life.

Next year will see the implementation of new legislation designed to eradicate whole body vibration (WBV), protecting staff from harmful vibrations from vehicles and plant machines. The regulations will be laid out in The Control of Noise and Control of Vibration Regulations, a new EU-wide directive. From July 2010, employers, including councils, will have to take steps to minimise the vibrations from vehicles and machines, reducing impact on the health of the operators.

Health problems derived from vibrating engines is a growing area of concern. The problem occurs when people are continually exposed to vibrations of a vehicle as part of their role. This can happen when in transit or even when the engine is idling. In nearly all cases, the vibrations are either transmitted through the seat of the vehicle and into the body via the buttocks or through the foot well of the vehicle and into the body via the feet.

Risks to human health

Council employees who spend a large majority of their roles operating mobile machinery such as tractors, fork-lifts, bin lorries, trucks or earth-moving machinery, could be exposed to WBV, and the effect of this on a person’s body can be significant. Studies have shown evidence of increased health risks with regard to the neck, arms shoulders and back, along with major effects on digestive systems and female reproductive organs.

Due to the processes involved in assessing and making sure that all vehicles are compliant with the new legislation, councils should take action now. Risk assessments must be carried out on all equipment that creates WBV and this could be a lengthy process depending on the size of the fleet. As well as the testing of the vehicles, councils need to factor in any remedial work needing to be undertaken to bring the units into line with the new rules, the downtime this could bring as well as disruptions to shifts and services.

Councils need to be thinking now about what steps they are going to take to fully implement the directive and also consider how the new rules will affect the operational abilities of their fleet, both in the short and long term. The fact that the directive was meant to come into effect in 2005, but has been delayed means that there may be scant leeway for those who are not in a position to fully adhere to the new laws.

The vibration directive places requirements on employers to ensure that risks from WBV are eliminated or reduced to a minimum, so employee education will be a key tool. Staff need to be educated about the risks of WBV and how best they can minimise it in their everyday roles, not just for themselves but also for colleagues.

Most councils will not have the in-house skills and scope to test their fleets and will have to work with a third partner – an accredited test facility such as Millbrook. Authorities will need to choose their partners carefully, ensuring they have the assessment and remedial capabilities necessary as well as supplying a report audit trail on each vehicle and its suitability.

At Millbrook we are already working with a number of local authorities and are currently devising a guide for employees on how to reduce WBV when driving. Councils cannot underestimate the time and resources needed to meet their obligations. Again, this is a process that cannot happen overnight. Managers will need to take time to understand the directive, its aims and its requirements before distilling it down to staff on the front line.

Councils need to be on the front foot, making sure they are ready to embrace the directive when it comes into force next July. This cannot be achieved by just flicking a switch. But by doing so, not only will they be meeting their duty of care towards their employees, but more importantly they will show their staff that they have their health and wellbeing at heart – not just now, but for the future.

Bruce Lornie is business development manager at Millbrook

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