NOT MANY GOVERNMENT agencies have had as difficult a first few years as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Born in 1971 with the mission of improving the conditions under which Americans work, it soon had few friends and many enemies. Labor groups, which had fought for its creation, claimed its enforcement was weak and its administration inept. Business groups, especially those composed of small businessmen, said it was killing them with voluminous regulations and reports. Various congressmen poked fun at its rules, such as those on how to design an exit sign and such bulletins as one on barnyard hazards. And last spring, after a memo to the President by high administration officials called it "the leading national symbol of overregulation," OSHA seemed to be a prime candidate for dismemberment or death.

That, apparently, has changed a little in the last few months. Eula Bingham, whom President Carter fetched out of the University of Cincinnati to run OSHA, has converted some of the agency's enemies into friends. She has announced it will focus on serious health hazards in high-risk industries and get away from trying to enforce, or at least make employers report on, dozens of minor rules that don't have a substantial impact on health or safety. And she is trying to curtail the flow of paper into Washington that employers have complained about so bitterly. The moves, according to even OSHA's harshest critics, are all in the right direction, and what remains to be seen is whether she can make them work.

We hope she can, because an OSHA properly directed can provide useful services to both workers and industries. But if it can't pull itself together - and we should add that OSHA's problems are not all of its own making, since some of them arise from its attempts to do what Congress explicitly told it to do - radical surgery will be required. President Carter already has a task force at work on how the federal government can provide more effective safety and health protection for workers. At the least, its report ought to help Mrs. Bingham continue and expand the reforms she has begun.But if that doesn't work and OSHA lapses back into its role as the ineffective nag of business and industry, alternatives such as getting the federal government out of the job-safety field will have to be considered.