OBJECTIVES: To evaluate the impact of work tasks, physical exposure, and psychosocial factors on the risk of musculoskeletal disorders in men and women, in a defined industrial setting. METHODS: 116 male and 206 female fish industry workers were compared with 129 men and 208 women with more varied work. Physical and psychosocial work load as well as musculoskeletal complaints were recorded by a questionnaire. A physical examination was performed and an observation method was used for work evaluation. 196 male and 322 female former fish processing workers received a postal questionnaire. RESULTS: The women workers in the fish industry had worse working conditions than the men for repetitiveness, constrained neck postures, and psychosocial work environment. They also had higher prevalences of complaints of the neck and shoulder (prevalence odds ratio (POR) 1.9; 95% confidence interval (95% CI) 1.1 to 3.2), neck and shoulder and elbow and hand complaints (POR 2.9; 95% CI 1.8 to 4.7 and POR 2.8; 95% CI 1.6 to 4.7, respectively). The women more often than the men left the industry because of neck and upper limb complaints. Also, women in other work had a higher prevalence of complaints of the neck and shoulder (POR 2.3; 95% CI 1.1 to 5.1) than the men. The men in the fish processing industry had a higher prevalence of complaints of the neck and shoulder than the men in other work (POR 3.6; 95% CI 1.6 to 8.0). This difference was not shown up by the questionnaire. CONCLUSIONS: Despite superficially similar work, there were clear sex differences in physical exposure and psychosocial work environment. Work in the fish processing industry was associated with a high risk of neck and upper limb disorders in women, which was probably mainly due to their extremely repetitive work tasks; the corresponding men had less repetitive work and less disorders. Also, a healthy worker effect on neck and upper limb disorders was found. The advantage of a physical examination compared with a questionnaire is clearly shown.