In March, 1976, the oil and chemical workers union filed suit in federal court to strike down a Gerald Ford executive order under which every new federal regulation with important economic consequences had to be preceded by an "inflation impact statement."

The order's purpose was to keep government safety regulations and others from driving up business costs and prices.

But the union said the order was also illegally delaying the issuance of federal standards limiting worker exposure to lethal chemicals. Standards governing exposure to ammonia, arsenic and lead had been held up eight months, the labor group told the court, a beryllium standard nine months, one on noise at least 13 months.

The suit made little progress, but the Ford lost the elction and the union allowed itself to hope the executive order would be rescinded.

Instead of rescinding it, however, Presidnet Carter has tentatively decided to perpetuate it. His decision has touched off a small but furious piece of infighting in and out of the administration.

On one side are such outside groups as the Oil. Chemical and Atomic Workers, assorted other affected industrial unions and Ralph Nader's Health Research Group. Their champions in the administration's inner councils are Labor Secretary Ray Marshall and Eula Bingham, the assistant labor secretary in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Among the units on the other side is the President's Council of Economic Advisers, fearful of a revival of inflation and almost weaponless to prevent it.

Efforts are under way to work out a compromise - a precedure that would ensure that agencies issuing regulations take into account their economic costs, but that would not unduly delay regulations. Whether such a magic middle ground exists is not yet clear. Carter is supposed to make a final decision in the next two weeks.

OSHA has still not issued standards on ammonia and the other chemicals the chemical union named in its suit. Bingham, who has promised greater speed in the promulgation of standards and firmness in their enforcement, says she thinks there is no question that the economic impact regulation has contributed to the delays.

Marshall, she said, thought the issue was "of such concern that he has not just left it to the assistant secretaries to deal with," and instead has made the case himself. "His comments to me all along have been it can really be a great waste of time," she said, "and that there is not an economic analysis that exists that he can't tear holes in, being an economist."

With no staff of its own to assess economic impact, OSHA had to hire outside consultants in times past. Bingham said OSHA spent $3.5 million preparing economic impact statements last year, "3 1/2 times as much as was programmed for the education of workers. Now that's an appalling thing, isn't it? . . . Funds are so tight and we don't have enough people in this agency to write standards, we don't have enough to go out and make inspections."

The chemical union makes the further claim that the economic impact order is downright illegal executive interference with congressional intent.

"Congress mandated very specifically that the workplace should be free from hazards," said Anthony Mazzocchi, the union's legislative director. "It didn't say the workplace should be free from hazards only if the employer could afford it, or only if it wouldn't cost him too much money."

The same issues that trouble OSHA and the union also troulbed carter administration economic policymakers when they began looking at Ford's exectutuve order, which the former President extended for another year just before leaving office.

They decided that the goal of trying to force agencies to look at the economic consequences of their regulations was worthwhile, but that the procedure should be changed to make it more efficient, less costly and less prone to slowing up the issuing of regulations.

Over the past two months there have been extensive discussion between the White House and Cabinet-level agencies trying to work out some changes that everyone can live with.

Sources indicated that in its latest form, the proposed Carter order asks agencies to determine the economic impact of what they propose, list some alternatives, and explain to some extent why they rejected the alternatives.

"They're going to have to make an economic as well as a regulatory decision . . . " said Peter Gould, an economic council aide.

"They used to say attorneys had taken over the government. I think now economists have taken over," said Bingham.

Gould and others deny that the program will result in agencies placing a dollar value on workers' lives.

"We're not asking for a cost benefit study to put a value on human life and say it's worth X, and not worth Y," said a Council economist. "We're saying when you've made a decision that you can work on this hazard down to a certain level, there's nothing . . . that says you should save that many lives in the most expensive way possible . . ."