"If you can't count it," statisticians love to say, "it doesn't count." Yet counting itself accounts for little; the usefulness of most data lies in the interpretation. Recently, some critics have tried to assess the federal government's efforts to ensure work-place safety and health by counting the number of inspections conducted, violations issued and penalties proposed. They claim these numbers show that the Reagan administration is backing away from its commitment to protect workers. However, the facts and their conclusions just don't add up.

First and foremost, it is essential to recognize that work-place inspections are only one of the tools afforded the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Inspections, which can spot-check only 1 to 2 percent of the nation's work places per year, can never be the sole means--or measure--of worker protection. Other programs--like penalty-free consultations with employers and health and safety training and education for employees--are likely to have a more immediate effect on the 3 million work places OSHA covers.

Nevertheless, enforcement statistics do illustrate certain quantitative changes. The key is to understand why the figures changed and whether employee protection is actually affected. For example, under this administration (February through October) OSHA averaged about 18 percent fewer inspections per month than during the previous administration (January through October 1980). But this quantitative drop means little without a qualitative analysis. What kind of inspections decreased most?

Most of the reduction was in follow-up inspections (to see that violations previously cited had been corrected). History shows these inspections seldom reveal violations; about nine of every 10 follow-up visits during fiscal year 1980 showed the employer to be fully in compliance with OSHA standards. Clearly, such visits are not the best use of an inspector's time. Another area of inspection reduction was in federal enforcement of standards in states operating their own OSHA-approved job safety and health programs. If a state is enforcing regulations effectively--and we monitor to make sure they do--then there is simply no reason for the federal government to duplicate the inspection.

Some reduction in OSHA's total number of inspections is probably unavoidable. If we are to cut federal expenditures and give the president's economic recovery program a chance to work, we must do more with less. We will offset a slight reduction in inspections with better management and a more effective mix of all the means at the agency's disposal. I expect two programs in particular to help us improve the allocation of inspection resources: a new method, in effect since October, of "targeting" the most hazardous manufacturing work sites for inspection; and a system under development to evaluate and respond to serious worker complaints more efficiently.

Still, it is worth noting that the decrease in inspections is not as steep as some have claimed. This administration is averaging only about 6 percent fewer inspections per month than were conducted during fiscal years 1978-1980.

Much has been made of the decrease in OSHA's citations for serious, willful and repeat violations--the citations more likely to carry stiffer proposed penalties. Yet, 30 percent of violations cited from February through October 1981 were serious, willful or repeat, a figure that closely compares to the 36 percent figure from January through October 1980. During fiscal years 1978-80, about one-third of OSHA's violations were serious, willful or repeat, a figure also substantially closer to the 1981 rate.

Finally, critics have focused on the amount of financial penalties the agency has proposed for violations. I submit that OSHA's goal is neither to make money nor to punish employers; it is to help improve work-place safety and health. When I came to OSHA, the agency was proposing almost $25.5 million per year in penalties. Many people, including myself, believe that much of this money could be better used toward eliminating hazards.

Reliance on excessive penalties to compel compliance can backfire. Employers have the legal right to contest OSHA citations before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. During the proceedings--which may take months to schedule and conclude--employers are not required to correct the contested violations, leaving workers unprotected. During fiscal year 1980, employers cited by OSHA contested the inspection 22 percent of the time.

I believe that most employers are reasonable and will strive to comply with reasonable requirements. Any who try to shirk their safety and health responsibilities will face substantial penalties. Those who are willing to work with us to reduce work-place dangers will find we are interested in fighting hazards, not employers. Under this administration, the proportional OSHA citations contested by employers has dropped to 9 percent, and settlement agreements have freed resources formerly tied up in litigation and speeded correction of hazards--our mutual goal.

There are other statistics that never show up in our enforcement data: how much voluntary compliance our "cooperative regulator" approach inspires; how many times an employer decides to work with OSHA because this time government might just be reasonable; and how many times labor and management form a coalition to improve job safety and health and to prevent the accidents OSHA never has to investigate. These kinds of statistics can, in the long run, really help make OSHA count in the battle against work-place hazards.