The government put toy manufacturers on notice yesterday that it may impose strict rules to prohibit toy chests with lids that can fall onto children's heads. Since 1973, at least 21 young children have died in accidents involving such lids.

However, in voting 4 to 0 to begin the rule-making process, some members of the Consumer Product Safety Commission noted the threat of a mandatory federal standard was a means of forcing toy makers to set a voluntary standard.

Commissioner Stuart Statler and Commissioner Edith Sloan expressed fears that a voluntary standard might not work in an industry of many small manufacturers, some of which do not belong to any industry organization. Statler said government action may be needed to prevent "toy chests . . . that turn into coffins."

The commission had been scheduled to vote next week on toy lids, but Statler urged an immediate vote to impress upon toy makers "the seriousness with which we regard 21 deaths."

Statler said he was disappointed in the toy industry, which was informed of the problem last December but has not scheduled a meeting on it until May 4.

"Why does it take five months when the commission has alerted the industry to a hazard?" Statler asked.

Douglas Thomson, president of the Toy Manufacturers of America, maintained the industry group had already made clear it intended to change its standards to ban free-falling lids. He said the delay in scheduling a meeting came about because the industry was diverse.

Thomson also said that, despite the diversity of the industry, the standards set by his organization are generally followed not only in this country but by foreign manufacturers.

The commission's vote called for announcing in the Federal Register that it was considering a rule which could require spring-type hinges on the chests that would prevent the lids from falling unless they were pulled closed.

The vote also established a program to inform pediatricians and retail stores of the hazard of toy chest lids.

In a separate vote, the commission took the first steps to change its rules on the flammability of textiles used in clothing. The change would leave the flammability standard intact but allow manufacturers to devise their own tests to prove cloth met it. That vote also would lessen record-keeping requirements on clothing manufacturers and exempt from testing certain man-made fabrics such as polyester and nylon that have consistently passed such tests in the past.

In other action, CPSC officials said yesterday the commission has abandoned a seven-year effort to force the aluminum industry to repair 1.5 million American homes equipped with wiring that may be a fire hazard.

The decision relieves the aluminium industry of a potential $2 billion to $3 billion liability, but leaves the owners of homes with the wiring facing repair bills ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 each if they choose to fix the problem.

In a closed meeting last week, the commissioners voted not to appeal a federal court decision that held the agency did not have jurisdiction over the wiring.

Martin Katz, general counsel for the agency, told United Press International the commissioners felt there was little chance an appeal would succeed.

Commissioner Statler said the decision not to appeal was the right one, considering the chances of success. But he called the court's ruling "ridiculous. Congress clearly intended the commission to have jurisdiction over all household products, including wiring."

The commission has scheduled a meeting next week to determine what its next move--if any--will be. One course would be to ask Congress to reaffirm the agency's authority over household wiring. But Statler said the current anti-regulatory mood in Congress makes that option unlikely.