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Work-related upper limb disorders and repetitive strain injuries

WRULDs/RSIs occur when the tendons, muscles, ligaments or nerves are damaged by repetitive movements done at work. Symptoms can include pain, swelling and difficulty in moving. The worst cases can result in permanent disability.

Common examples of RSI are:

    • tendonitis and tenosynovitis;
    • epicondylitis (tennis or golfer’s elbow);
    • carpal tunnel syndrome;
    • Dupuytren’s contracture;
    • bursitis (knee, elbow or hand).

Although work-related RSI is generally associated with the upper body, it can also occur in the lower body – for example, in the knees and feet.

Signs and symptoms of RSI

RSI can start with mild pain and stiffness in a specific area, or a general achiness, for example across the shoulder. Common symptoms include:

  • pain in the fingers, wrists, arms or shoulders;
  • stiffness;
  • pins and needles or tingling;
  • numbness;
  • swelling;
  • redness;
  • loss of strength in your hand or fingers;
  • cramps.

What causes RSI?

RSI is caused by repeated movements of the fingers, hands or arms carried out for a long time and/or in an awkward position. Anything from typing to cleaning can cause RSI.

Some common causes are:

  • working at a badly designed work station that has not been adjusted for you;
  • using equipment that is too heavy;
  • using equipment that is the wrong size;
  • using vibrating equipment;
  • using the wrong technique for a job;
  • doing a task that demands you grip something or apply pressure for a long time;
  • doing repetitive movements too fast or with too much force;
  • working in a cold, draughty environment;
  • doing the same task for a long time without a break.

How to prevent RSI

Employers have a legal duty to help prevent RSI. They need to make sure that your working environment, system of work and equipment does not cause injury.

Your employer should ensure that:

    • your work station is set up correctly;
    • your equipment is the right size, height and weight;
    • you have been trained to use the equipment;
    • your work environment  is not too cold or draughty;
    • your work schedule allows you regular breaks;
    • there is variety in the tasks you are required to do.

Next steps for UNISON reps

Request that employers carry out an RSI risk assessment. Make sure that workstations are safe and well set up, and that employees are trained to use equipment.

Support members with RSI/WRULD and encourage them to report their symptoms to their managers.

Launch an RSI awareness campaign as a focus to recruit new members and organise staff.

Key facts
  • Work-related upper limb disorders (WRULDs) is a collective term for a range of disorders of the hand, wrist, arm, shoulder and neck. It covers conditions with specific medical diagnoses (eg carpal tunnel) and other conditions often called repetitive strain injuries (RSI).
  • RSI affects up to half a million workers in the UK each year.
  • If ignored, RSI can cause long-term disability.
  • RSI can often be prevented by making very small changes to your work technique or work environment.



  • Can I claim benefits or compensation for RSI?

    There are certain RSIs that have been listed as industrial diseases and you may be able to claim incapacity, disability benefits or compensation for these.

  • How is RSI treated?

    Your doctor will usually advise you to rest your injury and avoid the movement that makes the symptoms of your RSI worse.

    They may also prescribe anti-inflammatory painkillers, a brace or support, physiotherapy, stretching or strengthening exercises, or applying ice or heat to the injured area.

  • What should I do if I think I have RSI?

    1. Speak to your doctor. Describe your work situation clearly and whether or not work makes your symptoms worse. Your doctor will advise you if your symptoms are being caused by an RSI.
    2. Report the injury to your manager and occupational health representative and ask for a risk assessment of your workstation or work schedule.
    3. Record your injury in the accident book.
    4. Report the injury to your safety rep.
  • Who is at risk of developing RSI?

    Anyone can develop RSI, although the following groups are more at risk:

    • cooks;
    • cleaners;
    • typists, clerical, and data processing workers;
    • drivers;
    • carpenters;
    • machine operators.