John Paumier died a horrible death. The 36-year-old foundry worker was splintered and crushed three years ago when a fellow employee accidentally turned on the power to a machine while Paumier was inside it doing routine maintenance.

By government count, Paumier was one of more than 1,200 workers who have been killed in similar industrial accidents since 1979 -- the year a government regulation designed to prevent such accidents originally was to have gone into effect.

During the eight years of the Reagan administration, that proposed standard -- to require locks on electrical switches to prevent factory machinery from being turned on accidentally -- was reviewed, rejected and revised on numerous occasions. It still is not in effect.

To critics of the administration, John Paumier's death is a symbol of all that's wrong with the approach the federal government has taken toward regulation for the last eight years. That approach, requiring federal agencies to show that benefits outweigh costs before any new government rule can be put in place, has resulted in a drastic slowdown in the pace of regulation.

But the impact of federal regulation -- or the lack of it -- is elusive. Proponents of Reagan's deregulation program point out that no regulatory scheme, no matter how intrusive, can prevent all worker deaths, guard all consumers from harm or protect all investors.

And the figures tell a mixed story: The number of job-related deaths actually has fallen throughout the Reagan years, continuing a long-term trend, and the number of reportable injuries is little changed. The benefits of less regulation, administration officials believe, show themselves in a more efficient and productive economy.

Summing up the government's regulatory record under his stewardship, President Reagan called the slowdown in the pace of regulation "one of our administration's proudest achievements. ... Over the last 7 1/2 years, we have substantially reduced that burden, cutting red tape and slowing the pace of new regulation."

The slowdown in regulation reaches far beyond OSHA, an agency of the Labor Department. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, for example, has cut its staff in half and adopted a voluntary compliance program that allows individual companies to come up with their own remedies for targeted safety programs. And the Transportation Department also has adopted the volunteer approach to auto-safety regulation with a program of few new regulations and voluntary safety campaigns.

Although it is not a major issue in the presidential campaign, the results of the president's deregulation program form a key chapter in the economic legacy he leaves to the nation and the next president.

Regulation touches a consumer who buys an auto or an all-terrain vehicle, an S&L depositor who wants to make sure her money is safe, a factory worker who handles dangerous equipment and a small-business person who may not be able to afford health insurance for his workers.

The warring factions in the deregulation debate -- regulators, the executive branch, Congress, consumer groups and economists -- will never agree about whether the last eight years were a success or failure. But while there is doubt about the consequences, there is less disagreement on what happened: With some exceptions, fewer rules were issued and existing rules were weakened.

It happened partly through actions of the agencies themselves, which stalled on issuing pending rules and refused to write new ones. And it happened, unexpectedly, through the intervention of the White House Office of Management and Budget, an agency that until 1981 had done far more budgeting than managing.

The process of slowing the pace of federal regulations began immediately after Reagan was sworn in for his first term. On Jan. 29, 1981, the president ordered a freeze on all "midnight" regulations, those that had become final in the last days of the Carter administration but had not yet gone into effect.

Three weeks later, he signed two executive orders that were to dramatically shift the balance of political power from the various agencies responsible for drafting and enforcing federal regulations to the White House.

The first order gave the Office of Management and Budget the power to veto or delay regulations proposed by individual agencies, and required the agencies to submit an economic impact statement for all new regulations showing that the benefits outweighed the costs. The second order set up a task force headed by Vice President Bush to oversee the administration's deregulation efforts.

Another major weapon that appeared in Reagan's antiregulation arsenal was the Paperwork Reduction Act -- ironically, pushed through Congress by the Carter administration -- which places the OMB at the center of all regulatory decisions. The law charges the budget office with making sure federal agencies do not create unnecessary paperwork.

Critics of the Reagan program have accused the administration of making the OMB the government's superregulatory agency, operating outside the normal rule-making proceedures. Critics within organized labor, in particular, describe the OMB's new role as a court of appeals for industry.

The Reagan offensive was designed to blunt the explosion of so-called social regulation of health, safety and the environment that occurred in the 1970s under the sponsorship of the Nixon and Ford administrations. That decade saw the creation of such agencies as OSHA, the CPSC and the Environmental Protection Agency, plus the enactment of more than two dozen pieces of major legislation regulating everything from noise and water to strip-mining and pension investments.

Unlike many of the federal regulations that have sprung up since the progressive era at the turn of the century, the regulatory approach of the 1970s took the federal government for the first time into the area of prescriptive standards.

The new approach not only told a company that it had to provide a safe work place or a clean environment, the new rule often also prescribed precisely how the company had to comply. And because the standards crossed industry borders, the business community often found it hard to forge a consensus on how any particular standard should be modified.

From the beginning, quantification of the cost of regulation proved difficult. Although it often talked of the cost of regulation to the economy, the Reagan administration has no firm estimates.

In the latest report on its regulatory agenda, the Office of Management and Budget sets the cost at $100 billion a year. But later, in the same report, the numbers become less precise. "Rough estimates have suggested the burden of federal regulation on the American economy ranges from $50 {billion} to $150 billion a year," the report said.

Many economists, even those who are highly supportive of the Reagan program, concede that it is almost impossible to accurately quantify the overall cost of regulations.

"You can't figure out the costs because you can't figure out the savings," said Larry Finneran of the National Association of Manufacturers. Peg Seminario, associate director of occupational health and safety for the AFL-CIO, agrees. "Quantifications are very hard to come by," she said. "It comes down to how much value you put on a human life.

Reagan's regulatory-reform effort not only has emphasized a slowdown in new regulation, it has moved, through regulation, toward allowing individual companies and industries to come up with solutions of their own to try to meet government performance standards.

The result of both prongs of the Reagan effort, said the AFL-CIO's Seminario, has been to "seriously slow down the regulation of the work place." She describes the Reagan attack on federal safety regulations as "ferocious."

"Not only have they stopped new regulations, they have essentially weakened existing standards," Seminario said.

Like many other critics, she blames that on the OMB. "In the last eight years OMB has assumed a large and, we feel, inappropriate role," said Seminario. "We now have OMB in the central position {of federal regulation} and the impact of OMB's involvement has been to make it very difficult to move into new areas."

Economist Marvin Kosters of the American Enterprise Institute, who has written extensively on federal regulation, sees the current system as a positive step.

"This administration has made a significant contribution in terms of installing a review process," he said. If the administration has failed in any area, he said, it's been the failure to achieve "important legislative changes in social regulation."

The role of the OMB was the principal target of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearings this spring into the operations of OSHA. It was here that the story of John Paumier and the saga of the proposed lockout regulation first came to light as a case study of how the regulatory process operates.

In 1979, during the Carter administration, the United Auto Workers union petitioned OSHA for an emergency standard to require "lockout devices" on electrical switches operating industrial machinery. OSHA denied the emergency petition, but in 1980 it published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking and held hearings on a possible standard.

The next year, after Reagan took office, work on the standard was halted.

In 1982, OSHA was again petitioned for an emergency temporary standard, this time by the Allied Industrial Workers union. Two years later, after much debate within OSHA over the scope of any lockout rule, the proposed regulation was sent to the Solicitor's Office in the Labor Department for review. The solicitor's office then spent another two years reviewing the proposal.

After four different drafts from OSHA, the solicitor's office gave its approval to the proposed standard. In May 1987, the proposed regulation was sent to the OMB for review. In April of this year, on the eve of the Senate labor committee hearings, the OMB approved the proposal from OSHA.

Two weeks ago, the Labor Department began a series of informal public hearings on that proposed standard, which would require locks or warning tags on electrical switches. But the rule exempted the agricultural, maritime and construction industries. OSHA has promised to try to put the rule into effect by the end of this year.

Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who has championed a lockout standard since Paumier's death, said the only reason OSHA finally came out with the standard when it did was because it had Congress breathing down its neck. Testifying at the OSHA hearing on the proposed lockout standard, Metzenbaum accused the OMB of "interference and obstruction" in trying to get the scope of the rule reduced.

John Pendergrass, the assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA, defended the slowness of the rulemaking process.

"There is no denying that the rulemaking process is slow," Pendergrass told the Labor Committee hearing last spring. "The process itself is designed that way, and with good reason. The public participation process, and the economic and feasibility analyses required by law and executive order produce sound regulations which can withstand the challenges that they invariably face when they are finally issued."