The Consumer Product Safety Commission is still awaiting word from the White House on its new chairman. The commission's current head, Nancy Harvey Steorts, announced her resignation last month and will step down Jan. 5.

Administration sources say the leading contenders still are CPSC Commissioner Terrence M. Scanlon, a Democrat and a strong advocate of reducing regulation, and Camille Haney, a Republican and president of Haney Co., a Milwaukee-based consulting firm specializing in consumer affairs.

At the time of Steorts' resignation, administration sources said that the White House had practically approved Scanlon's nomination. But Sen. Robert W. Kasten Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee that oversees the CPSC, asked the administration to put a hold on its decision until it had looked at Haney's credentials.

Congressional sources say Kasten is still fighting hard for Haney, and has been encouraged by the reaction from the White House and key congressional offices. Haney is widely known among consumer agencies in Wisconsin, but is unknown among most consumer groups here.

If the White House doesn't make a decision by Jan. 5, CPSC vice chairman Saundra Brown Armstrong will become acting chairman. A FEW FINAL IDEAS . . .

Meanwhile, outgoing chairman Steorts said last week that the commission structure should be reexamined. Steorts said it might be time to merge the CPSC with other federal consumer-protection efforts.

Steorts said it was a "wise decision" to create the commission 11 years ago to get dangerous products off the market and encourage manufacturers to produce safer goods. But, she added, "There is no sense in continuing something just to continue it, if there is a better way to do it."

Among the possibilities she suggested:

Restructuring the agency along the lines of the Environmental Protection Agency, with a single administrator rather than five commissioners.

Combining the work of related agencies into a broader safety agency, perhaps by adding product safety to the responsibilities of the Food and Drug Administration.

Retaining a product safety agency but making it subordinate to a government department, such as Health and Human Services.

Merging the CPSC into some other independent agency such as the Federal Trade Commission, which was a rumor floating through the CPSC last week. GIVING THE GATES THE GATE . . .

At Steorts' last scheduled commission meeting, she urged manufacturers of accordion-style baby gates to withhold them from the market voluntarily until the panel takes a vote on the issue Jan. 9. Commissioner Stuart Statler wanted an immediate vote to stop the production of thousands of the products between now and Jan. 9.

"I don't trust these companies," Statler said. "The makers are saying 'sell, sell, sell,' while the commission waits."

The commission couldn't act on Statler's concern because it is forbidden by law to take an official vote without at least seven days' advance notice. The panel's three other members said they opposed taking an early vote anyway, because they want more time to study the case.

Statler said the accordion-style gates have resulted in eight deaths and 23 injuries to children ranging in age from nine months to 2 1/2 years. The V- and diamond-shaped openings in the gates can trap a child's head.

Statler condemned the companies that make the enclosures for continuing to sell a product he said has been known to be dangerous since 1981, when the commission first started studying the matter.

But attorney Aaron Locker, who represents three of the six companies that make the baby gates, said the attacks were unfair because the baby gates keep children from falling down flights of stairs and thus have "long served to prevent far more injuries and deaths than have occurred through their use."

Statler responded that three other types of baby gates, which the CPSC has deemed safe, can be used instead of the accordion--style ones.