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There is growing use of a job exposure matrix (JEM) to provide exposure estimates in studies of work-related musculoskeletal disorders; few studies have examined the validity of such estimates, nor did compare associations obtained with a JEM with those obtained using other exposures.This study estimated upper extremity exposures using a JEM derived from a publicly available data set (Occupational Network, O*NET), and compared exposure-disease associations for incident carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) with those obtained using observed physical exposure measures in a large prospective study.2393 workers from several industries were followed for up to 2.8 years (5.5 person-years). Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) codes were assigned to the job at enrolment. SOC codes linked to physical exposures for forceful hand exertion and repetitive activities were extracted from O*NET. We used multivariable Cox proportional hazards regression models to describe exposure-disease associations for incident CTS for individually observed physical exposures and JEM exposures from O*NET.Both exposure methods found associations between incident CTS and exposures of force and repetition, with evidence of dose–response. Observed associations were similar across the two methods, with somewhat wider CIs for HRs calculated using the JEM method.Exposures estimated using a JEM provided similar exposure-disease associations for CTS when compared with associations obtained using the ‘gold standard’ method of individual observation. While JEMs have a number of limitations, in some studies they can provide useful exposure estimates in the absence of individual-level observed exposures.