The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has proposed a new way of determining how many inspectors a state must employ to be allowed to run its own job safety and health inspection program. If accepted, the proposal will substantially lower the number of inspectors that were required by the Carter administration.

In 1978, the AFL-CIO filed suit against OSHA, which was in the process of setting standards for state health and job programs. At the time, OSHA said any state that could prove it was providing a program that was "at least as effective" as OSHA's could eventually qualify for federal matching funds and administer its own program without OSHA's interference.

The AFL-CIO contended that the states should be required to provide a "fully effective" program, not the minimum that OSHA provided. The agency won in the lower court, but the U.S. Court of Appeals here ruled in favor of the AFL-CIO and ordered OSHA to develop "staffing benchmarks" for each state. In April, 1980, the agency responded with a complicated formula that set benchmarks for each state, as well as for itself.

Two months ago, Congress restricted the amount that OSHA could spend on its state safety program in the supplemental appropriations bill for the rest of fiscal 1982. At the time, OSHA administrator Thorne G. Auchter said that the intent of Congress was clear: "the earlier staffing benchmarks developed by OSHA represent unreasonable expectations."

Auchter also said that the states should not be expected to meet a tougher standard than OSHA's because the agency itself does not meet the staffing levels that it set in 1980. The 1,200 inspectors it now has represent only 40 percent of the benchmark for safety work and only 17 percent of its standard in the health area, according to agency official Susan Hall Fleming. The agency decided to apply those percentages, Fleming said, in determining new standards for the states. For example, Utah, which originally was required to provide 15 safety inspectors, would only have to provide six.

Comments on the new formula will be accepted until Dec. 6.