The Occupational Safety and Health Administration wants to reduce significantly the records that employers have to keep on medical histories of employes and the toxic substances to which they have been exposed. The Labor Department agency said the proposal, if adopted, would "streamline" the regulations and thus encourage employers to improve monitoring and record-keeping.

Dr. Rafael Moure, industrial hygienist with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, said OSHA is "merely trying to lower expenses for industry while ignoring the public health threat." But Mark A. de Bernardo, labor law attorney for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, countered that the proposal was "another dose of common sense in a regulatory area which has all too often lacked common sense in the past."

The OSHA proposal would reduce the number of substances on which records must be kept from 39,000 to 3,500. Firms would no longer have to keep records on employes whose work involves occasional exposure to harmful agents, but only on those directly exposed. (OSHA maintained that the old regs were so vague that a company president exposed to the chemicals on a plant tour would have to be covered.) Nor would employers be required to keep records of first aid and emergency treatment. Now, they must keep medical records for 30 years after an employe has left. That would be reduced to five years after an employe leaves.

OSHA asked for comments on whether unions should continue to be given access to employe exposure records, without written authorization from the employe. The agency noted that the National Labor Relations Board ruled that collective bargaining agents have that right, and questioned whether the OSHA provision still is needed. Comments on the proposal are due by Sept. 14 and a hearing will be held Oct. 5 in Washington.