The latest unemployment figures are enough to give anyone the jitters, no matter how secure a job may seem.

Who can help but wonder: Could it happen to me?

"The prime-time nightmare for 60 million working Americans," says Robert Coulson, president of the American Arbitration Association, "is to be called into the boss' office -- and fired."

What surprises him is that so few workers see it coming. "A lot of people thought they were doing fine. Then there's a tense meeting in the boss' office. Suddenly: Wow!"

Fear of job loss, says Coulson, "touches a deep nerve" in our society. "A person's job is crucial. When you are fired, you have no place to go. You have no phone, no function. You reach out for friends, but find that they are busy and have no time for you." Your self-image as a "valuable, productive person" is shattered.

Not only that, he says, "Bad things happen to workers who lose their jobs: alcoholism, chronic illness and child abuse, among others."

Getting fired can happen to anyone, blue-collar laborer or six-figure executive. Union workers have the protection of a contract, but it doesn't help much when their plant goes out of business or is moved to another state. Federal employes had good reason to feel secure under Civil Service laws until the big RIF (Reductions in Force).

But, Coulson points out, about 65 percent of American employes don't have protection. They can be fired virtually at the whim of the boss, except for reasons of sex, race and age. "It's a very common problem."

This is especially true, he says, in small firms or those not making much money. In many cases, the company has no policy that senior managers must review to approve a firing.

"The line superviser has total control in that situation. They can be unfair. This is less true in large institutional settings," he says, "such as banks and utilities that can adopt due process for their employes."

The discharge can come quickly. Coulson cites the case of the executive who on being told he was fired was instructed not to go back to his office. "All of his possessions had been taken from his desk and packed in a carton. He could pick them up at the reception desk."

A New York bank, he says, prefers to fire executives while they are on vacation. "They hope that the termination will be accepted as a fait accompli. They hope that the employe will swallow the decision and never come back."

The prevailing rule in this country, says Coulson, is "termination at will. While most employers are willing to listen to their employes' complaints, they still claim the right to terminate employes." And the courts have denied that a fired worker "has any general right of review."

Employers attempt to ease the fear of firing, he says, by exercising restraint, by adopting progressive-discipline programs and by providing formal grievance procedures. "Even so, whatever job protection nonunion workers may have is granted at the pleasure of their employer. What the employer has given may also be taken away."

In his work at the arbitration association, Coulson is familiar with "hundreds" of discharge cases. He has put his findings in a new book, The Termination Handbook (Free Press, 232 pages, $15.95), both a survival guide for threatened workers and advice to the boss on easing the impact.

"There's a lot of needless injury flowing from badly handled terminations. People have basically run amok because they were terminated in a cruel way."

Incidentally, Coulson -- tall and quite trim at 57, with the look of a New England college professor -- never uses the term "firing."

"It's pejorative, like 'kicking them out.' " He prefers, obviously, the word "terminate." He has never been fired, but as a boss "I've terminated for cause."

Coulson sees evidence, particularly in the courts, that "termination at will" may be changing. Especially in Worker Beware -

Savvy employes can recognize the danger signals threatening their jobs. Watch out, says Robert Coulson, president of the American Arbitration Association, if:

* You have information that your firm is doing badly.

* Your office budget is going to be cut. "Most employes are privy to that kind of information."

* You are not getting new assignments.

* You are not included in office communications or staff meetings.

* There is tension between you and the boss.

* Somebody else got the promotion you expected.

* You got a poor performance rating.

* You were demoted.

If you sense that you are in difficulty, confront your boss, Coulson advises, and "put the problem on the table and try and work it out. Lots of times a job can be saved. It may be a difference of perception." California and Michigan, the courts "seem to be reaching out" to rule favorably in cases involving unfair dismissal. "If the law changes because workers are faced with a lot of unfair situations, the employers brought it on themselves."

And he raises the possibility that among the younger generation entering the job market a "workers' movement" could develop. "Many younger workers have come to believe that they should maintain their full legal rights while they are working. They expect fair treatment. They would like to have the same rights and privileges on the job that they have as citizens."

As yet, he does not see these workers exerting any "really strong pressure" for new protective measures. "When nonunion workers get terminated, they are so preoccupied with personal problems, they don't get together with people of like minds." Labor unions, he says, haven't pushed either. "They think you should join a union."

But, he says, with the increase in unemployment -- "a real chronic problem in the Midwest and Northwest -- the electorate may begin to rethink whether this is a civilized way to run the employment market."

In this country, the most common reason for firing, says Coulson, is lack of work. After that, it is usually because workers have "violated the company's disciplinary rules. They are being terminated for cause": absenteeism, tardiness, poor performance, violation of safety rules, inattention to duties, loafing on the job, disobedience, creating a disturbance on company property, or gross misconduct such as theft.

"Most executives," he says, "think that the power to discipline workers is crucial. Without that right, they believe that it would be impossible to run a business." For minor infractions, the employe may get several warnings before being faced with job loss.

And what -- if you are fired -- can you do?

"Some people are so shocked and unprepared," says Coulson, their immediate goal should be "to buy time for a later meeting." If they decide to fight the decision, steps to get management to change its mind "should be taken instantly. Be persuasive. Plead. Take it to the head office."

If you acquiesce, he advises putting your energies into getting better severance terms:

* Try to get more time on the job to keep the paycheck coming in while you hunt for a new position.

* Get permission to use the office telephone and address while you are looking.

* Negotiate for a substantial severance allowance.

* Get your boss to agree to a "plausible and convincing" reason why you were let go. You need an explanation "that does not reduce [your] value as a prospective employe."

* Ask your boss to read your new resume and verify what you have accomplished.

* Find out who in the firm will give you a good reference.

* Ask your employer not to contest unemployment benefits.

And keep your temper. "Your boss is probably the first person that potential employers will approach for information about you and your abilities."

What happens, says Coulson, is that "some people are terminated and get nothing. Others get a year to find a new job."

Overall, American employers, he says, tend to be "fair" in the firing policies. Though he cautions management:

"It is cruel to discharge a worker unnecessarily. Very often, a worker can be saved; performance can be improved. Even where termination is justified, it should be done thoughtfully and reluctantly, with the least harm to the individual.

"An employer has an investment in each worker, one that should not be tossed aside casually."