Four area members of Congress and several union officials yesterday charged that ill-planned RIFs and, in one case, the direct violation of a congressional mandate are undermining the U.S. government's major programs for worker safety.

The critics charged that the decision by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to close 21 offices around the country and eliminate 250 jobs will leave thousands of workers without adequate protection on the job.

The group also maintained that one unit of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the agency that studies job hazards and recommends workplace health standards, is being virtually dismantled through illegal job transfers and changes.

"Engineered through budget cuts and justified by false claims of economies, these twin actions are a part of the continuing program of this administration to cut the heart out of worker safety and health protections on the job," George Taylor, the AFL-CIO's director of occupational safety and health, asserted at a press conference.

OSHA chief Thorne Auchter said that the critics of his agency's RIFs are "poorly and sadly misinformed," and insisted that the cuts would not affect worker safety because the number of OSHA field inspectors nationwide would remain at the current level.

A spokesman for NIOSH, which is not part of OSHA, denied that the job transfers were illegal. Spokesman Donald Berreth also said that plans to move NIOSH's Rockville office to Atlanta, which set off much of the current controversy, were originally drawn up with agency efficiency in mind.

The move, proposed last June, set off a storm of criticism by those who said it would reduce the agency's efficiency by taking NIOSH out of the Washington spotlight. Critics also charged it was suggested merely to accommodate NIOSH's new director who already headed a federal agency in Atlanta. Both allegations were denied.

Congress temporarily prevented the planned move by forbidding the agency from using federal funds to accomplish it.

Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Md.), whose district includes the Rockville NIOSH office, said research there has now "come to a virtual standstill" because of dwindling staff, the reassignment of numerous employes and the "illegal" transfer of some to Atlanta, in direct violation of Congress' intent. "The Department of Health and Human Services has determined that if NIOSH were not to exist in Atlanta, it would not exist anywhere," Barnes charged.

As to OSHA, Barnes and the others maintained that the planned RIFs in field offices would save the agency only about $1.8 million, funds that could be better taken from other OSHA programs.

Auchter disagreed, saying the agency had arrived at the "appropriate balance" in determining where it would save money.

The District office of OSHA, which now has 11 employes, including six inspectors, is one of those slated for elimination. Four inspectors would move to the Baltimore office, which would take over District inspections, according to OSHA officials. Barnes charged that the D.C. coverage would be inadequate. But OSHA officials said the District office had originally been opened to inspect Metro construction sites, and fewer inspectors could now handle the job.

Barnes, who organized the Capitol Hill press conference, was joined by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy and Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.).