ACCORDING TO NEW information put out by

the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation's work places have recently become notably safer. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's new head, Thorne G. Auchter, claims, moreover, that the facts and figures involved "clearly reinforce both our recently adopted policy of targeting OSHA-scheduled inspections . . . and our determination that all of OSHA's actions must have a positive impact at the work place level."

Since the information he's talking about applies to 1980, the year before the present administration took office, this claim may strike you as unusual-- changing expectations for the future is one thing, but working wonders in the past is quite another. The fact is, however, that the 1980 success in reducing hazards on the job may, indeed, bode well for the policies being pursued by OSHA's new leaders.

In the several years of its existence, OSHA has or hasn't been effective--depending on which numbers you choose. Since 1973, rates of injury or death among workers have declined significantly, though at an uneven pace. Industry, however, prefers data showing that workdays lost because of injury have increased. The two sets of numbers, however, measure quite different things. Injury rates provide no measure of severity. On the other hand, the lost workday measure is pushed upward by substantial increases in sick pay and workers' compensation-- these make longer absences affordable to workers-- and by the tendency of doctors to prescribe more elaborate and prolonged treatments.

Between 1979 and 1980, however, both these measures took a sharp turn for the better. One important reason for the improvement may be the Carter administration's policies reducing the harassment factor in OSHA inspections--scores of trivial regulations were wiped from the books--and further concentrating OSHA inspections on high-hazard industries. The Reagan administration--drawing on the experience gained in pilot projects launched by its predecessor--has gone still further in these directions. Detailed safety inspections will now be limited to employers who, on the basis of their records, have above-average injury rates--except in cases of fatalities or where employees file complaints.

Deciding how best to deploy about 1,200 inspectors to cover 3 million work places isn't easy. OSHA, like most regulatory agencies, has to depend primarily on a deterrent effect. Limiting detailed inspections to the worst offenders thus runs the risk of encouraging other employers to relax their standards. Organized labor also worries that employers won't keep honest records--although records will be checked by a worker representative.

These are real concerns that will bear watching if injury and illness rates fail to improve. If recent experience is any indication, however, it looks like OSHA is on the right track.