The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is considering dropping efforts to set work-place exposure standards for 116 potentially hazardous substances on which it has been working for years, including more than a dozen known to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

That would leave only six substances against which the agency is proceeding actively.

An internal task force told R. Leonard Vance, director of OSHA's health standards programs, that as a practical matter the agency's drawn-out efforts to set on-the-job standards for most substances already had been suspended because of manpower shortages, scientific and other kinds of controversy, litigation "and other reasons."

By officially deleting them from its workload now, the task force said, the agency "would notify the regulated industries that OSHA has no intention of moving on these chemicals, relieving them of any anxieties about possible impacts on their markets or production."

Among the substances on the list are such known cancer-causers as beryllium (a metallic element used in copper alloys), cadmium (also a metallic alloy), chromium compounds and nickel. Also included are a host of industrial solvents, including toluene and trichloroethylene.

The list also includes a chemical called MBOCA, used as a curing agent for a variety of plastic products. OSHA never has set permissible exposure limits for MBOCA, but the Environmental Protection Agency announced last May that it was putting regulation of the chemical on a fast track because it was a "potential human carcinogen" that presents "many opportunities for human exposure."

OSHA Administrator Thorne G. Auchter said he had not seen the recommendations of the task force, which he established in 1981 to review the agency's rule-making history, with an eye to determining "what was achievable within four years."

"There were various subjects that, up until two years ago, we'd gather information on and they were just languishing on the shelf," he said. "We thought we'd clean up the shelf, and see what should be moved on and what should be eliminated."

Auchter said no chemical would be removed from the health standards list unless "the scientific community said OSHA's current standard was okay."

But a scientist who served on the team said the group was not directed to assess the potential danger of the substances. "We just looked back at the first day of OSHA and tried to inventory them," said Chia Chen, an industrial hygienist.

The team's report, forwarded to Vance by Chen Feb. 1, states that "No significant risks of material health impairment or injury are foreseen by this action."

In a copy of the proposal obtained by The Washington Post, a section entitled "Factual Issues," which raises the health question, is scratched out. A handwritten note underneath states: "There are no factual issues to be considered." It could not be determined who wrote the note.

Vance did not return repeated telephone calls yesterday, but other OSHA officials said the team's proposal was still alive and under review in his office.

"They're trying to figure out how to finesse it," said a senior agency scientist who asked not to be identified.

The scientist also disputed Auchter's suggestion that the dormant standards team was looking only at activities that had collected dust on the agency's shelves for years.

"We were ready to publish a final standard on beryllium when this administration came in," he said. "The same with MBOCA."

Both substances appeared on the last OSHA priority list under the Carter administration, in November, 1980, but had disappeared from the first list drawn up by the Reagan administration six months later.

Health standards for some of the chemicals on the list have been in the works since 1973. Formal hearings have been held on only nine of the substances.

The task force report suggests that removal of the 116 substances from OSHA's workload "will clarify the agency's current standard-setting priorities." But it notes that a formal revocation notice would pose some problems.

"If this proposal were announced, it would immediately bring attention to the fact that OSHA had not completed work on 116 substances," the report said. "This cannot be good publicity for the agency."

Other disadvantages, it said, are that "agency critics will imply that the sole motive for this revocation is to impede future rule-making for these substances" and "the action will be seen as another attempt by the agency to avoid its statutory duties, or as another indication that the agency is unwilling to improve safety and health for workers."

The report also suggested that it might be to OSHA's advantage to set a health standard for one or more of the substances "to show progress that has not been apparent in other areas."

The task force also suggested that the agency might want to continue to do nothing.

"It is clear that the files on many of these substances have been inactive for so long that further inaction would be preferable to this deletion proposal," the report said. "It is easier to tell the public or industry that the agency is doing nothing on a substance-by-substance basis than to explain why nothing is being done on 116 substances or that no regulatory activity is foreseen."