In the Applation coal fields, death is making the rounds with a new partner: fear. In early December, 24 miners were killed by explosions and roof falls in three mines in West Virginia and Tennessee. In January, 20 more miners were killed, including 11 in Kentucky.

As employees in the nation's most dangerous industrial work, coal miners have historically gone into the earth with a mix of courage, care and fatalism. Miners say that you can be courageous in facing death and injury every day and you can be extra careful in looking out for yourself and your fellow workers. But at some point in the underground darkness, other powers--Providence, luck, fate--take over. On that philosophy, sons and daughters have followed fathers--who followed their fathers--into the mines.

But now it is different. Fear is rampant. It is believed that the current death wave is not some inexplicable fluke but is, instead, the first effect of decisions by the Reagan administration's Department of Labor to de-emphasize mine safety.

In 1981, mine operators paid $14.2 million in fines, a 27 percent decrease from the $19.5 million paid in 1980. Citations for safety violations dropped 16 percent from 1980 to 1981. Orders to close mines or correct hazards decreased 9 percent. In 1981, 153 miners were killed, the highest death rate in six years.

A provable link doesn't exist between the decisions in Washington and the dying in Appalachia. But the absence of hard evidence doesn't eliminate the hard suspicion that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is backing away from the spirit of strong enforcement that marked its creation in 1977.

Even before the 1981 figures on laxness were in, the Reagan administration was sending a message to the coal miners that they were a low priority. It took 10 months to appoint a director to MSHA. The person finally chosen for the job--Ford B. Ford--had no experience in coal mine safety and was from a state (California) with no coal mines.

If Ford's appointment wasn't sufficiently insulting to the miners, his public statements made up the difference. In January, he went to Beckley, W. Va., to tell his field personnel that the mine operators are feeling put-upon by safety inspectors. With so many funerals in central Appalachia that a regional state of mourning prevailed, Ford sought to comfort the owners. It was "quiet diplomacy" applied domestically.

He astonished his troops by telling them that "a heavy-handed dictatorial approach, with nit-picking and excessive disruption of the mine operation, can and will deter MSHA in achieving its goal." It was a surreal statement. Even before Reagan, safety inspectors were seldom aggressive against coal companies. Many had worked for management before their government service; many would work for the companies after.

In contrast to the easygoing Ford urging his men to cooperate with the coal industry, a conscientious federal administrative law judge in Washington was bringing the public up to date on a mine disaster of six years ago. In 1976, 26 men were killed in methane gas explosions in a Scotia Coal Co. mine in Kentucky.

It was only because Judge Joseph B. Kennedy tirelessly pursued the company that some semblance of justice was given to the widows and orphans of the killed miners. Scotia was fined a record $200,000.

In his decision issued in late January, Kennedy, who regularly visits the coal fields, took note of the current abandonment of the miners by the Reagan administration: "In the face of the rising rate of institutional manslaughter, the calls for further deregulation and relaxation of the enforcement effort seem unreal, if not morally irresponsible." He saw a "callous illogic" in the decisions to "reduce the enforcement effort by 10 percent when fatal accidents are up 15 percent."

Ford of MSHA insists that enforcement is not lessening. But not only do the facts coming out of his demoralized agency refute him, but so do observers on the scene. Tom Gish, the editor of The Mountain Eagle, Whitesburg, Ky., says that "the message the miners are hearing from Washington is that the government doesn't care about what's happening here."

It's the new federalism.