If you think only large companies need to worry about ergonomics, think again. In 1994 the number of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses reported by companies with 11 to 49 employees rivaled the national average (8.4 injuries per 100 workers). Two-thirds of those ailments were repetitive- stress injuries, which have tripled in the past 14 years. The annual price tag: $150 billion.

As co-owner of Android Industries, an automobile-door manufacturer in Whitmore Lake, Mich., Keith Masserang has felt the sting of that trend. In 1991, after a dramatic production upswing, workers' compensation claims quintupled at the 130-employee company. Eventually, the company's workers' comp insurance carrier dropped it because of the high costs it had incurred.

The company turned to the University of Michigan's Occupational Ergonomics Department, whose students provided free analysis and advice. After interviewing, observing, and videotaping employees at work, the company spent approximately $1.5 million on redesigning its workstations, retraining employees, and instituting prework stretching exercises and job rotation. Although that type of investment is out of reach for most small companies, the amount also included simple, less costly solutions, such as $200 fixtures to hold parts still for assembly-line workers, $200 trays to hold components for operators, and $50 stackable platforms. Was it worth the effort? "Last year our workers' comp claims dropped below the national average for the first time in the company's history," Masserang says.

For intelligent ergonomic advice, you might, as Masserang did, try contacting a local university. Also, Clayton Environmental Consultants (800-374-6967) offers The Ergonomics Manual ($8.50) and An Ergonomics Guidebook for Computer Users ($6). -- Robina A. Gangemi

* * *