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Managing upper limb disorders in the workplace: A brief guide for employers

Managing upper limb disorders in the workplace: A brief guide for employers

Date: 13th July 2014 | By: Claire Malley | Categories: Wirehouse

This brief guide describes what you, as an employer, need to do to protect your employees from the risk of injury and ill health from upper limb disorders (ULDs) in the workplace. It will also be useful to employees and their representatives.


This brief guide describes what you, as an employer, need to do to protect your employees from the risk of injury and ill health from upper limb disorders (ULDs) in the workplace. It will also be useful to employees and their representatives.

What are ULDs?

ULDs are conditions which affect the muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves or other soft tissues and joints in the upper limbs such as the neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands and fingers. They are often called repetitive strain injuries (RSI), cumulative trauma disorder or occupational overuse syndrome.

ULDs can be caused or made worse by work. In the following pages we explain:

  • Causes and symptoms;
  • How to assess the risks;
  • What you can do to help manage and control the risks.

What does the law say you must do?

As an employer, you have general duties under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to manage and control the risks associated with work-related ULDs.

If workers are using computers, employers should comply with the requirements of the Display Screen Equipment Regulations 1992, see Work with display screen equipment for more information (see ‘Further reading’).

What type of work can lead to ULDs?

ULDs are widespread across a range of industries and jobs. Any type of work that involves a worker using their arms to carry out tasks can lead to ULDs, eg computer use and assembly work.

What causes a ULD?

Various factors have the potential to cause ULDs, such as:

  • repetitive work;
  • uncomfortable working postures;
  • sustained or excessive force;
  • carrying out tasks for long periods without suitable rest breaks;
  • poor working environment and organisation.

What are the symptoms?

There is a wide range of symptoms, such as tenderness, aches and pain, stiffness, weakness, tingling, numbness, cramp, or swelling.

Managing ULDs

ULDs can be managed in the workplace by:

  • assessing the risks – this means looking around your workplace to see which jobs may cause harm;
  • deciding how likely it is that harm will occur, ie the level of risk, and what to do about it;
  • changing the way work is organised to help reduce risk;
  • helping sufferers when they come back to work.

You should consult employees on risks arising from their work and provide clear instructions, information and adequate training on any measures you put in place to control the risks.

The way jobs are designed, organised and managed can make a significant contribution to reducing the risk of ULDs. Employees may be more likely to suffer an upper limb problem if exposed to more than one factor. However, just because a worker is exposed to these factors does not necessarily mean they will develop a ULD or that the risks cannot be adequately controlled.

Assessing the risks of ULDs in your workplace

There are two main approaches you can use to assess and identify if you have a problem in your workplace. You can look for any signs of problems or symptoms in the workforce. Or, you can observe work tasks to see if there are factors that could lead to ULDs.

Factors likely to cause ULDs are listed in Table 1. They can interact with each other to increase the risk. HSE have also published a series of questions to help you decide if there is a problem – these can be found in Upper limb disorders in the workplace and on the HSE website (see ‘Further reading’).

Consider the following assessment of certain tasks and the individual’s requirements.

Factor Observations Control measures
Repeating an action This uses the same muscles

over and over again. The more

a task is repeated, the more

potential for developing a ULD.

Also consider the speed at

which the job is carried out.

Moving the whole arm at low

speed may be just as much a

problem as quick movements,

such as using an extension

tool where access is restricted.

Break up prolonged work

periods involving repetition

with changes to activity

instead of one break at

lunchtime or mid-shift.

Mechanise higher risk tasks




These include moving the arm

to an extreme position, eg

working above head height,

working with a very bent

elbow, or holding something in

the same place for a period of


Design workplaces and

equipment with the employee

in mind. Consider providing

platforms, adjustable chairs

and footrests, and suitable


Arrange the position, height

and layout of the workstation

so it is appropriate for the


Using a lot of

force and

handling heavy


This may include using

excessive force or having to

overcome friction, such as

undoing a bolt.

Handling/carrying heavy items

may have an impact.

Working with equipment and

tools that vibrate can increase

the risk of ULDs.

Provide levers, lifting aids

and, if possible, lightweight

tools, eg using jigs and

counterbalance equipment

may help.

Reduce the weight of items,

eg reduce the size of an item

(for unpacking/loading tasks).

Reduce the distance an item

needs to be carried, or slide

the item instead of lifting it.

Buy low vibration tools and

maintain them properly, so

they are not stiff.

Distribute force, eg over the

palm of the hand, not just

using one finger

Carrying out a

task for an


period of time

Work linked to shift patterns

and production with limited

scope for job rotation may

present problems

Share a high-risk task among

a team by rotating people

between tasks (each task

needs to be sufficiently

different to benefit the worker).

Allow employees to carry out

more than one step of a

process (provided the steps

do not have the same risks).

Introduce changes in activity

or rotate tasks to reduce

exposure to risks.

Poor working


Working in uncomfortable

temperatures or handling hot/

cold items.

Working in dim light, in shadow

or glare which causes a worker

to adopt an awkward position

to see better.

Reduce/control the levels of

exposure to uncomfortable

temperatures, eg reasonable

working temperatures in

workplaces inside buildings

(usually at least 16 °C, or

13 °C for strenuous work,

unless it is impractical to do

so, eg in the food industry).

Provide local heating or

cooling where a comfortable

temperature cannot be

maintained and avoid putting

workstations too near air vents.

Make sure the lighting is

good or provide suitable

adjustable lighting such as a

desk lamp. Avoid reflections

and glare by moving lights,

providing blinds on windows or moving workstations.

How the work

is organised

A lack of control over the work

rate or any excessive task

demands, can have an impact.

Duty holders are required to

consult employees on health

and safety matters.

Consider job rotation to

reduce exposure to risks and

encourage teamwork.



People are different in terms of

body size, age, ability, health

and may have disabilities to

consider when exposed to

certain tasks.

Monitor work rates to assess

the risks from excessive


Provide suitable training and


Consider involving employees

in decisions about their work.

Reducing the risk of ULDs

If your assessment shows that there is a problem, the following section provides some helpful suggestions for reducing the risks. A few general tips are:

  • changes do not necessarily need to be expensive. Simple and low cost changes can often be effective, eg introduce job rotation;
  • consider risks when setting up new workstations. It is cheaper than redesigning them or purchasing more suitable equipment at a later stage;
  • tackle the serious risks or those that affect a large number of employees first;
  • trial any new work practices before rolling them out across the workplace.

Dealing with ULDs

It may not be possible to prevent all cases of ULDs, because employees respond differently to risks. Anyone with a ULD needs to be informed how to prevent it getting worse.

Encourage employees to report any signs and symptoms to you, at an early stage, before they become too serious, so medical help can be sought by you or the individual.

People with ULDs can recover if the problem is recognised early and treated appropriately. The approach in most cases is for the affected person to rest their arm/hand to reduce inflammation. Physiotherapy may help. If you find that a task is causing or contributing to a ULD, you should stop employees doing that task.

If an employee has been off work suffering from a ULD, the timing of their return depends on medical advice. The employee’s GP and, if available, an occupational health specialist will determine the best way for the employee to return to work.

So remember…

  • things can be done to prevent or minimise ULDs;
  • preventative measures may be simple and cost-effective;
  • early reporting of symptoms and ensuring risks are assessed and controlled is essential.

If you would like further information, and you are already a client, please call the Advice line. If you would like more information on how Wirehouse could help your business in situations like this, contact us today on 0800 051 4211.

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