When workers at the District's Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind began making scouring pads three years ago, the sheltered workshop's director knew the new product line had two things in its favor: a market protected from competition and a customer with a good reputation for paying its bills.

Those advantages resulted from a program, run by a little-known federal agency, that carves out a sliver of the government's $110-billion-a-year procurement business for sheltered workshops employing the blind and handicapped.

The agency, the Committee for the Purchase From the Blind and Other Severely Handicapped, works with two nonprofit coordinating groups to help the workshops find jobs they can do for the federal government. Last year, that business totaled $138 million.

The Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, for instance, is able to employ 14 of its 35 blind workers on the $425,000-a-year contract it fills for the government. "We're doing something we just couldn't do without the help of the federal protection," said Charles A. Fegan, the workshop's executive director.

Charles W. Fletcher Jr., a former Army general who serves as executive director of the federal committee, said, "We were established because it was very apparent that workshops operating on a shoestring budget would not have the money to set up a marketing system."

Sheltered workshops for the blind have had a protected market with the federal government since 1938, when the Wagner-O'Day Act created the Committee on Purchases of Blind-Made Products. The panel had relatively few powers until 1971, when, at the behest of then-Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.), the law was amended to set up the current committee and expand its jurisdiction to other kinds of workshops. The legislation also gave the committee the power to issue regulations and hire a permanent staff.

The 15-member committee, along with its staff of 12, determines which products and services normally bought by the government are suitable for development by workshops. Once a product has received such a designation, federal agencies that want it must purchase it from a workshop if the workshop can meet the demand. Only products made by prisoners working for the Federal Prison Industries are given a higher priority.

Under the system, the nonprofit National Industries for the Blind and the National Industries for the Severely Handicapped act as marketing agents for the workshops and receive a percentage of their contract amount in return. When the groups think a workshop could provide a product a government agency needs, the groups submit an application to the committee. The committee reviews what impact the designation would have on private business, publishes a notice in the Federal Register and then formally decides whether to add the product to the protected list.

Once a product is on the list, all other federal agencies must first offer a contract for the product to the workshops that produce it before the contract is offered for competitive bidding by the private sector. This measure of market protection helps the workshops--really struggling small businesses--avoid a high failure rate.

Under guidelines established by the committee, the two nonprofit groups help the workshops with assessment of costs, industrial engineering, pricing and dealing with government paperwork and regulations.

Currently, 69 of the 102 qualified blind workshops and 123 of the 136 qualified handicapped workshops supply products for the federal government. Many of the 4,050 other workshops for the handicapped are primarily for rehabilitation and do not qualify for the program.

Besides the brooms, mops, pens and pencils that sheltered workshops traditionally have produced, the workshops have developed such diverse products as teletypewriter paper and canvas bags with lead weights used to sink garbage carried aboard submarines, and services such as operating elevators, cleaning campgrounds and repairing furniture.

"All of our products must pass strict quality assurance tests; if we don't produce on time, we'll lose a contract," says Eivino H. (Ivy) Johansen, executive director of the coordinating group for the severely handicapped. "It's happened, but fortunately we've only had a few workshops that have failed to produce adequately, and at this end we monitor them closely because we have a creditability to maintain." Besides direct sales to federal agencies, the products are also sold in military commissaries and post exchanges.

While the program is a boon to the handicapped, it costs taxpayers something: The committee sets prices for the products that are 5 percent above the fair market price --4 percent goes to the two coordinating groups and 1 percent covers the workshops' administrative costs. The committee itself operates on a $612,000 annual budget.

In September, the General Accounting Office issued a report calling on the committee to take more steps to verify that 75 percent of the employes of the protected workshops are actually handicapped, as provided by law. The GAO also recommended that the law be amended to require that 75 percent of the work on the federal projects themselves be done by the handicapped. The report also called for greater efforts to place the employes in private jobs after they have been trained in the workshops.

Johansen cites data showing that 15 percent of the nonblind handicapped in the program took positions in the private sector in fiscal 1981, and only one in seven of them returned to a sheltered workshop. In 1980, about 9 percent of the blind workshop employes were placed in private-sector jobs.

Says Johansen: "What does it do to a person to be a part of a producing workshop? It gives that person some dignity. It runs counter to that individual being locked up in a closet at home or in a nursing home. It's worth it to have someone who makes a contribution."