The Occupational Safety and Health Administration yesterday launched a program to encourage voluntary compliance with federal regulations by exempting firms with "exemplary" health and safety records from regularly scheduled inspections.

Assistant Secretary of Labor Thorne G. Auchter said the program "will help augment OSHA's limited inspection force" and allow OSHA to focus on the most hazardous work sites. It would also free participating firms from "undue government interference," Auchter said, adding that employers and employes know best how to eliminate work-place dangers.

But George Taylor, the AFL-CIO's top health and safety official, said, "We don't agree with OSHA's definition of what's a hazardous work place." He also argued that scheduled inspections are important to worker health and safety, and accused OSHA of "merely trying to cut the number of inspections" to adjust to reductions in the agency's budget and "to make things easier for industry."

The program reflects the Reagan administration philosophy that incentives rather than threats are a more effective way to regulate industry, and that voluntarism is a key to paring down the federal regulatory machinery. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture's plant and animal inspection programs are considering similar approaches, according to the Office of Management and Budget, which strongly supports the idea.

Under the OSHA program, firms that wish to participate must apply to OSHA. If accepted, OSHA will remove the companies from its scheduled inspection lists and will give priority to any of their requests for a variance or waiver from a standard.

Firms will be expected to comply with all OSHA regulations. The agency still will investigate worker complaints and fatal or serious accidents, Auchter said.

Saying that the success of the voluntary program depends on "an atmosphere of cooperation," OSHA said a unionized work site must demonstrate that the union has no objections before the agency will allow it to participate. Taylor said the AFL-CIO will decide on participation on a site-by-site basis.

OSHA has set up three categories of voluntary compliance. The major one is called the "Star Program." To qualify, a firm's average rate of injuries and its average rate of work days lost due to injuries must be not be higher than the national average for the last three years. The firm must not have been cited for willful violations of OSHA standards during those three years, and it must have a safety and health program.

Taylor said the AFL-CIO does not believe the statistics necessarily reflect whether a work place is dangerous, particularly if there is a long-term health problem. OSHA countered that if serious health problems are identified by workers it will make inspections on request, although Taylor complained that OSHA is making fewer complaint inspections.

The second category is the "Praise Program," aimed at particularly low-risk industries. The third is "Try," an experimental program in which firms are invited to develop alternative compliance programs.