Three federal agencies jointly announced steps yesterday to protect farmers, workers and consumers from a pesticide that has been linked to sterility and possibly cancer in human beings.

The concerted "emergency" action comes 16 years after disclosure of preliminary industry tests indicating that dibromochloropropane (DBCP) caused sterility in animals and a month after sterility was reported among California workers handling the chemical.

The restrictions - announced at a joint news conference by the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration - include:

An emergency OSHA standard for workers who handle DBCP that prohibits eye and skin contact with the chemical, limits exposure through air to 10 parts per billion, requires protective clothing and respirators and mandates continual monitoring of exposure levels and worker health.

An EPA order suspending DBCP use on 19 food crops, mainly vegetables, and suspending its use for other purposes unless the product is labeled as a "restricted use pesticide," meaning its use is limited to certified trained applicators wearing respirators and protective clothing.

A ban by FDA on sale of any foodstuffs that are found to be contaminated by DBCP in a nationwide survey that the agency is planning to begin shortly.

While the three agencies hailed joint action as evidence that they are following through on a pledge last month to cooperate in regulatory cases, it was cited as a bad precedent, "filled with loophole after loophole," by Dr. Sidnew M. Wolfe, director of Ralph Nader's Health Research Group.

Wolfe said labeling is an ineffective tool and would permit continued use on small farms unprotected by OSHA regulations, making migrant workers especially vulnerable to exposure. He said the EPA action impedes the force of the OSHA order rathen than strengthening it.

Under the EPA order use of DBCP -a soil fumigate used largely to kill nematode infestations on plant roots - would be suspended for most vegetable crops such as lettuce, tomatoes and squash. Labeling would be required for such crops as citrus fruits, cottong and soybeans and for maintenance of golf course turf, home lawns and shrubs.

DBCP has been produced or formulated by about 80 plants since it came into use in the mid-1950s. Two major producers, Dow Chemical and Shell Chemical, voluntarily stopped production last month and began recalling the product. Action was required because the product is still in circulation and workers can be contaminated in the recall and disposal process, the officials said.

The OSHA order takes effect today, and the EPA order will go into effect in five days unless manufacturers request a hearing, which would be held under expedited procedures, officials said.