It has long been known that work with vibrating tools, especially in combination with low temperatures, can cause nerve damage to hands in the form of white fingers. A doctoral dissertation to be published in the spring now shows that exposure to cold during childhood also increases the risk of white fingers later in life. The study is based on 12,000 people from the northern parts of Sweden, of which 11 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women had problems with white fingers.
“This is a widespread illness and we see a clear connection to exposure to cold,” says Albin Stjernbrandt, who authored the dissertation. “For those who have suffered frostbite at some point, the risk of having white fingers later in life may increase tenfold, while those who have often been exposed to cold without frostbite have roughly twice the risk.”
White fingers, or Raynaud’s phenomenon as it is also called, is a form of damage to small blood vessels that can lead to numbness, impaired fine motor skills, pain and weakness in the area affected. Such symptoms are relatively common among those who work with vibrating tools in cold environments, which often include seafarers. Albin Stjernbrandt has noticed this in his daily work as a specialist doctor at the Clinic for Occupational and Environmental Medicine in Umeå.
“Sometimes people working on icebreakers come to us with these problems. In addition to cold, their hands are also affected by wind and humidity, as well as stress,” he says.
Albin Stjernbrandt believes it is particularly important to get help early in the case of Raynaud’s phenomenon. Fingers may turn white or turn bluish, with a tingling sensation or numbness in the hands. The trigger may be work with vibrating tools, cold or stress. The symptoms usually disappear when exposure to the above factors stops but may recur on new exposure and may get worse with time.
“It is important to detect and prevent these problems in time because there is so little that healthcare can offer to alleviate the symptoms. Some of those who come to the clinic say, “I’m 63 years old and I plan to continue working for the next two years until I retire.” I can understand their reasoning, but you should be able to have a good life after retirement as well,” says Albin Stjernbrandt.
Despite the fact that many people work in cold environments in Sweden, the Swedish Work Environment Authority has not yet written any guidelines for working in the cold outdoors. That is a shortcoming that should be remedied, in Albin Stjernbrandt’s opinion.
“There is an international ISO standard for exposure to cold when working outdoors, but the Swedish Work Environment Authority has not incorporated this into its regulations and they do not really seem to be interested in doing so either. It is as if the authority has chosen to leave the issue to someone else.”