The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is seeking its first criminal prosecution during the Reagan era in a case involving the death of a worker who was buried under a collapsed wall.

This referral is the first one for the administration in its 21 months in office. The previous administration sent the Justice Department 22 cases in four years, resulting in six convictions.

But OSHA spokesman James Foster said that any comparison between the two administrations at this point would be unfair. Foster said virtually all of the previous administration's referrals came in the second two years in office. Thorne Auchter, director of OSHA, "is actually a little ahead" of the time when the previous administration began referring cases for prosecution, he said.

The case that has been referred to Justice involves an alleged safety violation at a sewage system improvement project in Girard, Kan. William Wyatt died of suffocation April 22 when he was buried in a narrow trench at the site of sewage system work. Wyatt was employed by Heckert Construction Co. in Girard.

Wyatt and a co-worker were drilling holes for dynamite at the bottom of the trench when a portion of the east wall collapsed, burying both men. The other man scrambled out from under the dirt, but Wyatt could not, and rescue workers did not reach him before he died.

The OSHA Act provides that criminal penalties may be sought in safety cases when a "willful" violation of safety regulations results in the death of a worker. The penalty is up to a $10,000 fine and six months in jail.

In making the announcement, OSHA noted that a federal appellate court decision has said that violation of an OSHA standard is considered willful "if done knowingly and purposely by an employer who, having a free will or choice, either intentionally disregards the standard or is plainly indifferent to its requirement."

Under Auchter, the number of inspectors searching for violations has been decreased, and the number of safety citations issued against companies also has decreased, Foster said. But he said these figures also should not be used as a comparison with the previous administration, because under a new procedure instituted at the end of the previous administration, the local OSHA office can negotiate with those cited for safety violations.

Citations that are settled by negotiation, usually by correcting the safety hazard, are not reported.

Foster said that OSHA in the Reagan administration has no policy that would tend to reduce the number of safety violation prosecutions. "When we find criminal cases we prosecute them," he said.

Paraphrasing a remark of Auchter, Foster said, "We are a safety and health agency, not a crime and punishment agency. The important thing is to correct the hazards, not to collect lots of money in fines or issue lots of citations."