In what may prove to be a landmark effort, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has signed an agreement with the Chain Saw Manufacturers Association allowing the trade group to develop mandatory safety standards for chain saws.

Last week's 4-1 vote by the commission accepting the terms of the agreement could mean that safety standards for chain saws will be developed within a year and a half for about one-third of the cost the CPSC would have incurred had it attempted to develop the standard on its own.

"This is a very important decision," said William Kitzes, the CPSC program manager who worked on the agreement and will be in charge of following through on it. "It could mean safer products on the marker in less time, and for less money."

The Chain Saw Manufacturers group decided to approach the commission and suggests voluntary standards last fall, after the commission indicated that it was leaning toward developing its own mandatory standards to deal with an increasing number of chain saw-related injuries.

Many Commission staffers and at least one commissioner were concerned over the request, fearing that the agency would be giving too much authority away to a group that had not demonstrated an ability to develop a safe standard.

Commissioner R. David Pittle dissented from the decision because he felt the trade group had already spent two years on the saw "kickback" problem and had not developed any standards. He believed the agency should take on the task itself.

But Pittle voted with the other commissioners on allowing Kitzes to be a part of the standard-developing process, which is the key to this and any future voluntary standards arrangements.

Under the arrangement, there will be five individuals on a standard's review board that will meet monthly to supervise the development of safety standards for chain saws.

Included in the group will be one industry participant picked by the CSMA, one small businessman in the industry, one doctor familiar with mechanically inflicted injuries, one technical consumer and one non-technical consumer. The last four will be selected by mutual agreement between CPSC and CSMA.

In addition, Kitzes will be a non-voting member of the board, participating in discussions and making monthly reports to the commission on the progress of the group. At any time the commission feels that the group is not doing its job, it can cancel the project and develop the standard itself.

According to Kitzes, the cost to the government of developing a standard under the agreement would be about $350,000. If the government conducted its own standard development process, Kitzes said the cost would be $1 million.

Many other trade groups and consumer groups are watching the chain saw situation with interest. Many CPSC staffers see it as a means of increasing the reach of the agency, which is burdened with a shrinking budget and growing number of issues.