Upper limb disorders (ULDs)


Upper limb disorders (ULDs) are aches, pains, tension and disorders involving any part of the arm from fingers to shoulder or the neck. ULDs include problems with the soft tissues, muscles, tendons and ligaments, along with the circulatory and nerve supply to the limb. Upper limb disorders are often caused or made worse by work.


Symptoms of ULDs include stiffness or pain from joints and the inability to straighten or bend those joints. Aches and pains, tenderness, stiffness, weakness, tingling, numbness, cramp and swelling to muscles of the arms or the neck.

These symptoms may suggest overuse or damage to the limb or some underlying condition, if you are concerned please speak to your Doctor/GP.

Reducing the risk of upper limb disorders (ULDs) in the workplace

Changes do not necessarily need to be expensive. Simple and low cost changes can often be effective:

  • consider the risks when setting up new workstations, it is cheaper than redesigning them or purchasing more suitable tools at a later stage
  • tackle the serious risks or those that affect a large number of workers first
  • try to make the task and workstation suitable for each worker, rather than make the worker adapt to fit the task and workstation
  • test any changes on one or two workers before making changes for everyone

Reduce the impact of risk factors

Workers may be more likely to suffer an upper limb problem if exposed to more than one risk factor. Control strategies for each of the individual risk factors associated with ULDs are outlined below.

Repetitive work

  • break up work periods involving a lot of repetition with several short breaks instead of one break at lunchtime or mid-shift
  • allow for short, frequent pauses for very intensive work

Uncomfortable working postures

  • design workplaces and equipment for workers of different sizes, build, strength and for left-handed workers
  • provide platforms, adjustable chairs and footrests, and tools with a suitable size grip
  • arrange the position and height and layout of the workstation so that it is appropriate for the work

Sustained or excessive force

  • reduce the weight of items, or the distance moved or slide them instead of lifting
  • ensure any handles and/or controls that are used are well maintained and easy to manipulate without without requiring the application of unnecessary force
  • provide lightweight tools and, if not, a support, jig or counterbalance will help
  • ensure all tools are well maintained and implement a regular maintenance policy
  • ensure the right tools are used for the job which can reduce the amount of force required to perform tasks

Carrying out a task for a long period of time

  • share a high-risk task among a team by rotating workers between tasks (each task needs to be sufficiently different to benefit the worker)
  • allow workers to carry out more than one step of the process (job enlargement) this can reduce ULD risk exposure to one specific task (provided the steps do not have the same risks)
  • introduce short frequent breaks in more risky activities (but not necessarily a rest)

Poor working environment and organisation

  • purchase low-vibration tools to reduce potential hand-arm vibration (HAV) risks
  • make sure that the temperature is comfortable, and avoid putting workstations too near air vents
  • make sure that the lighting is good or provide a personal lamp
  • avoid reflections and glare by moving lights, providing blinds on windows, or moving workstations

Individual differences and susceptibility

  • encourage teamwork, and ensure good communication between workers and management
  • rotate workers between tasks to reduce boredom
  • watch the production speed to keep the workload reasonable
  • train workers so that they feel able to do the task
  • get the right balance for bonus schemes as such schemes could encourage workers to work beyond their natural limits
  • involve workers in decisions about them and their work

Assessment of Repetitive Tasks Tool (ART Tool)

  • The ART Tool is designed to help assess repetitive tasks involving the upper limbs. It assesses some of the common risk factors in repetitive work that contribute to the development of upper limb disorders.

Assessment of Repetitive Tasks Tool (ART Tool) - HSE GB (www.hse.gov.uk)