Safety can be the factor used to sell a variety of consumer products from chain saws to soft drinks, 430 business, consumer and government officials were told yesterday.

Companies that market the safety of their products may be able to prevent accidents and avoid government regulations, said Donald V. Marchese, president of the McCulloch Division of Black & Decker Inc., and one of four members of a panel that discussed "Product Safety: How Well Does It Sell?" The all-day session on product safety was sponsored by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Marchese said that his company was sometimes asked "if it isn't scary to talk about safety" and thus frighten away some potential customers. He also said that promoting the safety of the product rather than the price or innate worth of the product goes against the grain of some marketing values, especially when the national economy is soft and consumers are looking for bargains.

"But we see safety as a value," Marchese said. "We think it is worth the marketing risk."

He said the McCulloch chain saw advertisements now emphasize the chain saw's chain brake feature, which stops the chain saw from running if it is dropped during use. Television spots show how the brake works. New packaging for the chain saw depicts the chain brake feature. McCulloch exhibits at trade shows demonstrate the way the chain brake works. And the company has a film showing the safety feature.

Other products that have been promoted on the basis of safety and health factors include soft drinks that are caffeine-free and automobile tires that have special road-handling features, he said. Even the tobacco industry talks about low tar and nicotine levels of certain cigarette brands, Marchese noted.

But safety advertising by itself isn't sufficient, according to another panel member, Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.

Consumers often don't realize the dangers of a product because they aren't willing to believe that they will be injured, Brobeck said. They are reluctant to acknowledge the risks of automobile accidents, fire injuries and other product-related problems because "it reminds them of their own mortality," he said.

Brobeck said that government regulation also may be needed in some cases to establish minimum protection for consumers in the marketplace. "It is easier to change a product than the behavior of 225 million people," he said. And, although the marketplace is a "very efficient allocator of goods and services," it can't take into account the long-term effects of products on health, such as thalidomide, a drug given to pregnant women that caused abnormalities in children. Government must step into that gap with regulations, he said.

The other panel members -- all of them representing business -- said they favored business self-regulation and opposed mandatory government rules.

In an afternoon program on the effectiveness of product recalls, CPSC Commissioner Sam Zagoria said that the commission oversees the recall of between 100 and 120 products a year. All of the products are recovered in some cases, he said. But less than 10 percent of the others are turned in.

"The large, most hazardous, most durable, most expensive products get the highest percentage of returns," he said. "The cheap, less hazardous, plastic products get the lowest percentage of returns."