Whether your employees work on a PC or production line, it’s your legal responsibility to protect them from upper limb disorders (ULDs). Widely known as repetitive strain injuries, ULDs are musculoskeletal conditions that affect the neck, shoulders, arms, fingers, hands and wrists. If left untreated, ULDs can steadily shift from low-level discomfort to debilitating tissue, muscle and ligament damage, so it pays to take preventive steps.

Construction workers. Programmers. Assembly line operatives. Any employee who uses their arms at work is in danger of developing a ULD, but a number of factors can further raise the risk. In the manufacturing industry, these include repetitive tasks (such as hammering or drilling), insufficient breaks, incorrect posture and vibration from tools or machinery.   

While work-related ULDs are extremely common – causing 2.6 million days’ absence in 2017/18, according to an HSE report – a proactive approach can help cut compensation claims and keep your people pain free.

Understand the risks

Begin by zeroing in on potential problems. Systematically observe the daily tasks of your production line workers, noting actions that could contribute to ULD development. Key questions include:

  • How often are tasks repeated, and over what time period? Do employee activities vary throughout shifts? Is there pressure to achieve a particular speed or output?

  • Are workers exerting strong force or handling heavy or hazardous materials? Does the equipment they use vibrate? How much effort is exerted to complete each job?

  • How comfortable are working positions and postures? Red flags include working with arms extended overhead, repeated pulling and pushing motions and completing tasks in a confined space.

  • Is the working environment fit for purpose? Consider light and shadow, temperature, equipment quality, workstation layout and individual staff needs.


Spot the symptoms and provide support

Not every muscle twinge turns into a ULD, but under the Health and Safety Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers are legally required to control risk factors and take workers’ symptoms seriously.

Early consultation and action are key – and could head off prolonged health issues, days lost to injury and costly dips in productivity across entire teams. In the HSE’s ‘Upper Limb Disorders in the Workplace’ guide, they advise: “Any warning signs may be the ‘tip of the iceberg’. One person with symptoms may mean there are numerous other workers also exposed to risk factors, and who are in the process of developing a disorder.”

Start by educating yourself and your workforce about ULD signals, making it easy for employees to report them via team leaders or trained safety reps. According to the HSE guide, common symptoms include:  

  • Tenderness

  • Aches and pains

  • Stiffness

  • Weakness

  • Tingling and numbness

  • Cramps

  • Swelling

Subtle behavioural changes can also flag ULD issues, so keep an eye out for:  

  • Trends in injury and illness records

  • Groups of employees describing similar symptoms

  • Jobs that workers are reluctant to do

  • Tasks that cause workers to complain of discomfort

  • Makeshift adaptations to workstations, tools or chairs

  • Employee requests to be re-deployed or taken off a job

  • Splints or bandages being worn

  • Regular use of painkillers

Make positive changes

The good news is that upper limb disorders can often be managed and prevented with simple changes to task structure and design. So put staff feedback and risk assessment data into action and pinpoint areas for improvement to equipment, methods and working environment.

The HSE’s ‘Managing Upper Limb Disorders in the Workplace’ resource sets out a range of possible remedies. Here’s a snapshot:

  • Make lengthy, repetitive or high-risk work healthier and more fulfilling by expanding staff remits to cover a variety of tasks. Consider rotating responsibilities across your team, giving employees ownership of a number of steps in the production process.

  • Adapt workstations and tools around employee needs and design safety into new spaces from the very beginning. Would platforms, lifting aids, levers or lighter equipment make the job easier?

  • Reduce the weight or size of bulky items and provide safe means of moving them. Could a different approach – such as sliding rather than lifting – lighten the load?  

  • Provide low vibration tools that distribute force evenly. Keep them up to spec with regular checks and employee feedback.

  • Maintain safe, comfortable levels of light and temperature, ensuring workstations are free of glare, shadow and excessive heat or draughts.    

Stay on top of standards    

With early detection and treatment, most workers recover from ULDs through a combination of rest, basic work adaptations and, when needed, physiotherapy. If an employee has been signed off due to ULD complications, follow the advice of their GP and occupational health specialist when mapping out their route back to work.

Going forward, regular health monitoring can gauge whether your preventative measures are delivering the right results, company-wide. Using tools like questionnaires, body maps and face-to-face consultations, it’s an informal but effective way to take stock of ULD warning signs before they impact workforce wellbeing.

For expert advice on health monitoring, production line safety and preventing workplace ULDs, chat to your Southalls consultant.