Accusing federal regulatory agencies of failing to protect workers in the huge agricultural chemical industry, two groups yesterday called for a crackdown on a pesticide linked to sterility.

In related moves, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union and Ralph Nader's Health Research Group asked for emergency controls on the manufacture and use of dibromochloropropane (DBCP), a pesticide used to kill worms in the soil.

The pesticide has been linked to 38 cases of male sterility in chemical plant workers at Lathrop, Calif., and Magnolia, Ark. It has also been found in laboratory tests to cause cancer and other health disorders in animals.

In requesting that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration set restrictive emergency standards governing worker exposure to DBCP, A.F. Grospiron, president of the oil, chemical workers union, said his union feels "that the regulatory indifference to the many toxic substances used throughout the entire agricultural chemical industry had reached crisis proportions.

"The OCAW alone has approximately 16,000 members employed in this industry. These workers are exposed to every variety of pesticide, animal feed additive, and other fertilizer chemicals, the majority of which remain untested or improperly tested."

Grospiron asked OSHA chief Eula Bingham to set an emergency standard limiting worker exposure to one part DBCP per billion parts of air, the lowest amount scientifically measurable. He also requested a broad testing program to search for incidents of cancer and sterility among workers.

There now are no federal standards governing DBCP use. Industrial sources, however, recommend an informal standard of one part per million parts of air.

Meanwhile, Public Citizen's Health Research Group asked the Environmental Protection Agency for an immediate ban on scores of products containing DBCP.

"It's necessary to suspend the distribution and use of DBCP immediately because thousands of farm workers may be in the fields inhaling its dust, and hundreds of chemical workers may still be coming in contact with it," said Peter Greene, staff counsel for the Nader group.

The EPA said it is studying the problem, but so far "we don't have any evidence of ill effects among people who have applied the chemical, or farm worker who may have handled it or people who may have eaten food with residues of it."

The agency has had DBCP on a suspect list for months, and is expected to decide within several weeks whether to call the chemical into question under a process wherein manufacturers will have to prove its safety.

The Dow Chemical and Shell Chemical companies, the two largest producers of the chemical, have temporarily halted its manufacture. A spokesman for Shell said last night, "We certainly support anything that will improve conditions in the work-place as long as it's reasonable." The spokesman expressed doubts that the standard of one part per billion parts or air was reasonable.

Frank Greer, an OSHA spokesman, said his agent "welcomes" the request from the chemical workers union. "We've already had under active consideration emergency temporary standards," he added.

"We think what's needed in the whole pesticide area is a concerted, coordinated and planned action to deal with pesticides," he said. "By nature, these chemicals are extremely dangerous and we have to do something to protect people."

OSHA's history in this area is not good. In his request to OSHA, union president Grospiron noted that two other pesticides, Kepone and phosvel, which were manufactured without federal controls, have been found to cause severe nervous disorders among chemical workers in recent years.