Despite the availability of no fault insurance for wage replacement and medical care costs, the majority of workers diagnosed with an occupational disease do not apply for workers' compensation. The objective of the study was to determine the reasons why workers diagnosed with work-related musculoskeletal disease did not apply for workers' compensation benefits. A cross-sectional study of 1598 individuals diagnosed with neck, upper extremity, and low back work-related musculoskeletal disease from April to June 1996 was performed. All individuals were interviewed over the telephone using a standardized questionnaire. The questionnaire included questions about the precipitating event; demographics; health limitations; mood; pain level; and attitudes toward their health care provider, fellow workers, management, work environment, and filing for workers' compensation. Whenever possible, standardized questions from previous surveys were used. The interviewed individuals with work-related musculoskeletal disease were reported by health care practitioners as required by the state of Michigan's occupational disease reporting law. Workers reported during 12 weeks in the spring of 1996 by a Michigan health care professional as having a neck, back, or upper extremity musculoskeletal disorder were eligible to participate. Among the 2703 reports received, 490 individuals could not be reached, 22 did not speak English, 12 had died or were too incapacitated by other medical conditions, and 581 refused. We interviewed 59% of all eligible workers and 73% of all workers who were reachable and capable of responding in English. Only 25% of workers diagnosed with musculoskeletal disease filed a workers' compensation claim. The factors significantly associated with filing a claim were (1) increased length of employment (> 21 years: odds ratio [OR], 3.01, 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.31 to 6.90); 11 to 20 years: OR, 2.34, 95% CI, 1.01 to 5.47; 6 to 10 years: OR, 1.76, 95% CI, 0.73 to 4.25; 1 to 5 years: OR, 2.36, 95% CI, 1.03 to 5.42; < 1 year: OR, 1.00; (2) lower annual income (< $40,000: OR, 1.75, 95% CI, 1.06 to 2.88 vs > or = $80,000: OR, 1.00); (3) workers' dissatisfaction with coworkers (OR, 1.76, 95% CI, 1.01 to 3.06); (4) physician restrictions on activity (OR, 2.16, 95% CI, 1.55 to 3.00); (5) type of physician providing treatment (specialist, including surgeon or orthopedist: OR, 3.63, 95% CI, 2.37 to 5.55); physical and occupational therapist: OR, 2.15, 95% CI, 1.35 to 3.43); family practitioner: OR, 1.33, 95% CI = 0.89 to 2.01; company physician: OR = 1.00); (6) off work > or = 7 days (OR, 14.85, 95% CI, 10.57 to 20.85); (7) decreased current health status (OR, 0.82, 95% CI, 0.70 to 0.96); and (8) increased severity of illness (OR, 1.24, 95% CI, 1.06 to 20.88). This study showed that only 25% of workers with a work-related musculoskeletal condition filed for workers' compensation and refutes the common perception that an individual with a work-related problem is likely to file a workers' compensation claim. The strongest predictors of who would file were those factors associated with the severity of the condition. Other factors were increasing length of employment, lower annual income, and worker dissatisfaction with coworkers. Our study population consisted mainly of unionized autoworkers, and our findings may not be generalizable to the total workforce.