Cheekiness is the last trait you'd ascribe to Ford B. Ford. He's the mild- voiced and bland-mannered assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. In a stunning display of bureaucratic cheek, he told a congressional subcommittee last week that under the Reagan administration, 1982 was "a very encouraging year" in reaching for such goals as reducing mine deaths.

In fact, it was a bleak year. There were 122 deaths in 1982. That was down from 153 in 1981, but the decrease is deceptive. The figures have a context that Ford, in his zeal for deregulation, ignored.

In 1978, when nearly a decade of regulatory strength was having its impact in the coal fields, the fatality rate--the number of deaths per 200,000 employee hours--was .0548. That was 106 deaths in 386,786,298 hours. In 1981 and 1982, the rates were .0759 and .0624, figures that are not only higher than those in 1978 but were above the .0608 rate in 1980, the year before Ford began carrying out the philosophy of the Reagan administration to get government off the coal industry's back.

Ford would be ignorable, except that coal mining remains the nation's most dangerous industrial work. The Mine Safety and Health Administration may appear to be just another dull federal agency, but its policies are related to life-and-death issues in the 28 states where coal is mined.

The Reagan administration is now past the mid-point in its term. As late as a year ago, Ford was advancing the give-us-time- to-prove-ourselves argument. Last March, he stated: "We'll be expanding, not cutting back, our safety program."

It hasn't expanded; it's contracted. In the proposed 1984 budget, less money and fewer workers are called for in crucial departments within MSHA. A cut of 129 slots and $700,000 has been requested for the agency's coal enforcement division. Nine of 72 positions are to be dropped in the assessments program, with a reduction from $2.5 million to $2.2 million. Ten workers and nearly $900,000 will be cut from the technical support office. This occurs after two years of reductions in the number of mine inspections.

The retreat is doubly blatant because the health and safety regulations in the United States are less stringent than in other nations. In a 1980 article in the West Virginia Law Review, comparisons were made in the mining fatality rates between the United States and such countries as Britain, West Germany and France. Those nations all had better safety records. In 1975-77, the British fatality rate per 100 million work hours was 15. In the United States, 45. In 1970-74, the figures were 88 for the United States, 20 for Britain.

In his testimony before Congress last week, Ford offered several proposals for weakening our already weak law. By his tunnel vision, he would eliminate the requirement for two complete inspections yearly at surface mines. Let the inspections be done according to "the needs of each mine." Instead of civil penalties for violations, as the law now requires, Ford wants MSHA to "simply issue a notice" in "the case of many minor violations. If the violation is corrected promptly, no penalty would result."

The definition of "minor," compared with violations that are called "signficant and substantial," is now an open question. According to the United Mine Workers, 81 percent of coal mine violations in 1980 were labeled significant and substantial by the government. In 1982, the figure dropped to 21 percent. The union points out that for the last three years "fines averaged 2.5 cents per ton, 1.8 cents per ton and 1.1 cents per ton respectively."

Few are more alarmed at the trends than Richard Trumka, the new president of the UMW. He told a House committee in late February that MSHA is reversing the regulations created by the 1969 coal mine health and safety law. At that time, Trumka said, "Congress found that the industry could not be trusted to police itself, but the current program seems to be returning to that failed principle."

This isn't the posturing of a new union leader out to show himself a tough guy against the wicked operators. Trumka was, if anything, restrained. Coal miners are being trashed by the Reagan recession, even without the assault on them by Ford. In parts of Appalachia, so many mines have been closed or are operating at reduced work schedules that unemployment is nearly 40 percent.

Ford insults the miners with his talk of promoting "a more cooperative approach to safety and health among industry, labor and government." How can there be cooperation with a high death rate? Or cooperation with little interest in enforcing the law?

Among the workers, the fear is that the coal fields are becoming minefields..