The Occupational Safety and Health Administration yesterday proposed a more stringent standard for worker exposure to ethylene dibromide, a potent chemical used in leaded gasoline, on fruit and in flour mills. It has been linked to cancer and reproductive damage in humans.

The agency's announcement came less than two weeks after it was disclosed that OSHA had refused to issue an emergency standard for EDB for more than a year, even though it had two studies showing that virtually every worker exposed to the legal limits of the chemical for a career could expect to die of cancer.

Shortly before reports on those studies appeared, OSHA officials had told a congressional panel that a new standard for EDB would not be ready for at least six months. But, faced with mounting public criticism after the disclosure, OSHA moved quickly to ready the standard for publication in today's Federal Register.

"The significant risk of harm to worker health posed by EDB compels OSHA to promulgate a more protective standard to substantially reduce that risk," OSHA Administrator Thorne G. Auchter said.

The new standard would lower the allowable limit for EDB from 20 parts per million in the air, averaged over an eight-hour day, to 0.1 parts per million.

It also would set a short-term exposure limit of 0.5 parts per million, averaged over a 15-minute period, and would prohibit eye and skin contact with the chemical.

EDB is used as an anti-knock agent in leaded gasoline and as a fumigant for citrus and tropical fruit to prevent the spread of fruit flies and other pests.

In 1981, nearly 170 million pounds of EDB were produced in the United States. Massive amounts of it were used that year to combat the Mediterranean fruit fly in California.

OSHA estimates that about 56,000 U.S. workers are exposed to EDB for varying periods. But the agency doesn't have jurisdiction over small farming operations, and other estimates of the workers potentially at risk from the chemical range as high as 100,000.

OSHA claims its studies show that most workers are currently exposed to levels of EDB far below the exisiting 20 ppm standard and much closer to the new standard. But the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has testified that many flour-mill workers can smell the chemical, which has no odor until it reaches a concentration of 10 parts per million.

Besides causing cancer and reproductive damage, high exposure to EDB can damage the kidneys, liver, spleen, respiratory tract, central nervous system, circulatory system, skin and eyes.

EDB is so potent that OSHA once said the exposure risks "appear to be far greater than for any other hazard that OSHA has regulated in the past."

Yet the agency repeatedly rebuffed calls by other federal agencies and the Teamsters to take emergency action on EDB, even though OSHA had two Environmental Protection Agency studies in its files in 1981 that showed the "excess cancer deaths" that could be expected from exposure at the maximum legal limit were 999 of every 1,000 workers.

At the time, Auchter said an emergency standard wouldn't stand up in court because OSHA didn't know enough about how many workers were being exposed or at what levels.

Recently, OSHA said it had collected that data and the figures proved Auchter acted correctly by waiting to issue a new standard.