Labor unions thought something suspicious was up.

Industry knew something was wrong.

In March, Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials were telling both sides that a "high priority" standard to help prevent grain elevator explosions was at the Office of Management and Budget for final review before its scheduled publication.

It wasn't.

For up to two months between late Feburary and late April, the standard was mired in a bureaucratic netherworld between offices in OSHA's parent Labor Department, and mired so deeply that key OSHA officials weren't sure where it was.

"It was a very simple problem. The thing just got lost," said OSHA spokesman Douglas Clark. "There was no decision to hold it up. It was an oversight. It wasn't really lost. It just got mislaid."

"One standard got held up, I want to say inexplicably--no, unfortunately--for some period," said Gary Stroebel, special assistant to OSHA Administrator Thorne G. Auchter. "This is the first time there's been a delay without everyone's knowledge."

"We were going through what is a normal review and dialogue process," said assistant labor solicitor Frank White, who handles OHSA issues. "There were some misapprehensions as to where the document was at a particular time."

"At some point when it went back from White's office to OSHA, the original was lost and we had to put it together again . . . ," said Diane Burkley, a special assistant to the labor solicitor for regulatory affairs. "There had been a small miscommunication between OSHA and the solicitor's office . I don't think it's going to help anyone to talk about it."

It didn't help that Auchter, Stroebel and Burkley were out of town when industry officials were calling to ask where the standard was.

"It's pretty curious that the standard they say has high priority could get lost," said Randy Gardner, a spokesman for the National Grain and Feed Association.

Last year, OSHA officials had promised to publish the standard in January.

"I got it in to Thorne Jan. 31. That's when he wanted it," said Barry J. White, head of OSHA's safety standards directorate. "I had people working nights and overtime to make the deadline. Next time you ask people to do this, they're going to say, 'Why? It's not going anywhere.' "

Where is the document now?

"Gone to OMB," said Stroebel, Clark, Burkley and Frank White.

Really?

"Just came in," confirmed OMB official Jim J. Tozzi at 6:15 p.m. yesterday.