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Hand Tools

Repetitive tasks, sometimes involving tools, can cause musculoskeletal problems.

In October of 2014, Wayne Farms poultry plant of Jack, Alabama, was cited for numerous violations including exposing workers to musculoskeletal hazards such as carpal tunnel syndrome. OSHA proposed fines of more than $100,000.

While this fine is quite hefty, musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace are not uncommon. Poultry and other food processing workers regularly face musculoskeletal hazards, as they often perform repetitive motions for many hours each day. These problems have become so common that OSHA published a guide for preventing musculoskeletal injuries in the industry.

One of the disorders that can be work-related is carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). You’ve likely heard of CTS and you might associate it with office tasks such as typing or using a mouse. As it turns out, these tasks are actually a low risk factor for developing carpal tunnel syndrome.

It is more likely that higher-intensity tasks such as performing assembly line work, packing meat or sewing will cause this disorder, according to the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). CTS can also be related to other tasks involving repetitive hand motions, awkward postures, stress on the palm or gripping, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) explains.

computer station

Working at a desk is actually less likely to cause CTS than assembly line work. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ale2006

What Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

CTS is a neurological disorder affecting the wrist and hand. The carpal tunnel actually refers to a tunnel in the wrist where tendons and the median nerve pass from the arm to the hand. These tendons, which attach the bones and muscles in the hand, can become swollen, pinching the median nerve and causing CTS.

Common symptoms of CTS include pain, numbness, tingling and weakness of the grip. Sufferers are often awakened by pain during the night. These symptoms occur because the median nerve is being squeezed. Since that nerve carries information about pain, temperature and touch to the brain, pressure on that nerve causes these unpleasant sensations.

Maintenance, Tools

Working with hand tools at odd angles can cause problems.

Is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Really Work-Related?

Some studies have shown that carpal tunnel syndrome is less work-related and more person-related. This means that a person’s medical situation may have a stronger impact on the likelihood that someone will develop carpal tunnel syndrome than his or her profession.

Genetic factors may play a role, as well as underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and hypothyroidism, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Even obesity, smoking and excessive alcohol use can increase a person’s risk of developing CTS.

Additionally, women are three times more likely to develop CTS than men. It is thought this is the case because the carpal tunnel in women is smaller.

So what does this mean for employers? Some employees are more likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome than others, and it’s possible work-related tasks could increase a person’s chances of developing CTS, especially if he or she is predisposed to the disorder.

As an employer or safety manager, you are responsible for reducing the risk factors posed by your workplace as much as possible.

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Reducing the Risk of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

You can take steps to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders such as CTS in your workplace. First, it’s important to understand what tasks can contribute to the problem. You likely have little control over the non-occupational risk factors such as a worker’s medical conditions or lifestyle habits, but you can identify tasks that combine high force with awkward postures and repetitive motions.

If you’re uncertain about which tasks in your workplace are potentially problematic, CCOHS provides a helpful table listing example tasks and occupations.

Once you understand the risks, try to reduce them. NINDS recommends workplaces follow some of these guidelines to prevent CTS:

For companies to implement:

  • Schedule rest breaks for recovery.
  • Have employees rotate tasks during the day.
  • Encourage workers experiencing problems to consult a doctor and potentially obtain devices like splints.
  • Provide hand tools that fit the job and the worker performing the job.
  • Set up workstations so they are as ergonomic and easy to navigate as possible. Avoid arrangements that require workers to use awkward postures or make awkward movements.
  • Develop an ergonomics program that fits jobs to workers. 

For workers to perform:

  • Stretch hands and arms regularly. The University of Maryland Medical Center provides a list of stretching exercises you can perform throughout the day.
  • Strengthen the arms through exercise. Yoga may be beneficial.
  • Follow instructions for appropriate wrist postures. Whenever possible, keep the wrists straight.
  • Wear fingerless gloves if your hands get cold. This can help with flexibility. The cold may in some cases contribute to musculoskeletal disorders, too.
  • Consult your doctor and employer if you experience symptoms of CTS.

Remember, ergonomics is about fitting the task to the worker, not the worker to the task. Seek ways to make tasks easier and more comfortable for workers so they are less likely to experience strains or repetitive motion injuries.

musculoskeletal disorder

Listen to our short podcast episode about musculoskeletal disorders of the hand and arm.

Test Yourself

Do you or your employees have CTS? In most cases, you will need to have a doctor perform a series of diagnostic tests to determine if CTS is the problem. One simple test you can do on your own to determine if a doctor’s visit ought to occur is Phalen’s Test, which is when a person puts the backs of the hands together, bends the wrists and points the hands downward. If the fingers begin to tingle, the median nerve may be damaged.

If you experience tingling during this exercise, it’s worth visiting your physician. If this test doesn’t affect you, but you are still experiencing other symptoms of CTS, you should see your doctor. CTS or other musculoskeletal disorders or medical problems could be the culprit. When CTS goes untreated, it can require surgery to correct and can make it difficult for a person to perform regular job tasks.

Interested in learning more about ergonomics? Read How to Select Ergonomic Hand Tools.