OSHA - THE NAME HAS become synonymous with federal regulation gone awry. In part it's a bum rap, because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has taken effective action against vinyl chloride and some other serious threats to workers' health. The agency has suffered, though, from indifferent leadership and a tendency to dissipate its resources on nit-picking programs and trivial rules. While many of the tales about OSHA inspections and requirements have been overblown, there has been enough truth in them to fuel the folklore about bureaucratic paternalism and pettiness. In short, OSHA has not been as bad as its critics maintain - but neither has it been as persistent and purposeful as it should be.

Labor Secretary Ray Marshall and Assistant Secretary Eula Bingham are now setting out to give the beleaguered agency more focus and force. Their plan, announced last week, includes something for everyone. Organized labor, congressional committees and the General Accounting Office should like the decision to concentrate on substantial health and safety problems in high-risk industries such as construction, manufacturing, transportation and petrochemicals. Business groups should applaud the new emphasis on simplified regulations, voluntary compliance and consultation, and fewer inspections of small businesses in low-risk fields.

If pursued with enough determination, this sensible strategy should make OSHA much more effective - but not necessarily more popular. Indeed, a vigorous regulatory campaign, especially against health hazards, is bound to take OSHA even farther into areas full of scientific uncertainty and political strain. Workers these days are exposed to a host of substances whose effects on human health are not fully understood. Even where something is known to be toxic, the precise degree of risk - or an acceptable amount of exposure - may be very hard to calculate, and the costs of full protection can run very high. There are no simple formulas for weighing all the variables and determining how much a company, an industry or society in general should invest to safeguard a given number of lives.

The Carter administration is not shying away from these tough problems. Last month the Labor Department announced an emergency crackdown on workers' exposure to benzene, a petroleum derivative generally believed to cause leukemia. Though the United Rubber Workers and other unions have been urging such a step for years, some labor spokesmen have criticized the proposed 90 per cent reduction as inadequate. Petroleum companies, on the other hand, are challenging the order as excessive in some respects.

As the OSHA overhaul proceeds, more controversies of this sort are bound to arise. Indeed, they should be welcomed, as evidence that government and society are finally facing up to more of the real issues of industrial health and safety in a world of complex technology.