Washington safety inspectors have leveled $24,400 in fines against a West Virginia chemical plant where five women claimed they had to undergo sterilization operations last year to keep their jobs.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said workers at the American Cyanamid Co. Willow Island pigment plant were overexposed to lead and to potentially cancer-causing chromates.

The plant became a focus of controversy earlier this year when the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union said five women workers were pressured to undergo sterillizations because of company fears that they were being exposed to lead at their jobs. A pregnant woman's heavy exposure to lead, particularly during the early stages of pregnancy, can produce defects in the fetus.

The union said lead levels at the plant were so high that they could cause reproductive problems in both men and women. Therefore, the union said, the company's efforts to exclude potentially child-bearing women was discriminatory.

An American Cyanamid spokesman said yesterday that the OSHA fines, which wer filed May 1, would be challenged. "The company is dedicated to protecting the health of all employes8" the spokesman said, and will "demonstrate that employe health has been safeguarded" in its challenge to the federal citations.

Federal lead standards have been sharply attacked by the lead industry since they were implemented last year. The industry claims the emposure levels for airborne lead are too low to be economically feasible. American Cyanamid said yesterday it agrees with that.

The company said it has been able to meet federal guidelines on the amount of lead allowable in workers' blood. However, it did not indicate the amount of airborne lead it had recorded in the plant. In interviews earlier this year, workers said the lead levels in the air of the willow Island pigment facility were so high they occasionally produced a colored haze inside the plant.