There has been much debate regarding the work relatedness of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) and whether workers diagnosed with CTS had pre-existing disease at the time they were hired. To elucidate the latter issue, we examined the prevalence of abnormal median nerve conduction within the carpal tunnel in applicants for industrial jobs. Nerve conduction studies (NCS) were performed on both hands of 1,021 applicants following a conditional offer of employment. Each applicant completed a self-administered symptom survey specific to the upper extremity. Applicants had worked previously for an average of 4.4 (range 0-33) years and had a mean age of 30.1 (S.D. 8.9) years. Nerve conduction studies were performed in a private medical clinic. Sensory palmar latencies were determined over an 8 cm segment for the median and ulnar nerves. The difference between the median and ulnar sensory latencies was the primary electrophysiologic measurement used to determine median neuropathy. Using a very conservative criterion for abnormal median nerve conduction, 17.5% of the applicants were classified with neuropathy in at least one hand. Despite the relatively high prevalence of median neuropathy, relatively few (10%) with positive NCS acknowledged symptoms associated with CTS. Males had a higher percentage of median neuropathy than did females. We conclude that a large percentage of industrial workers have objective evidence of abnormal median nerve conduction within the carpal tunnel when hired. The high prevalence of abnormal median nerve conduction without corresponding symptoms may suggest a subclinical entity associated with CTS.