SHOULD THE government warn workers if it knows they have been exposed to harmful chemicals? Two years ago, an ethics advisory panel within the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that while the government had no legal requirement to notify exposed workers, it had a moral obligation to do so. But the department continues to drag its feet on the matter, citing reservations that -- while not without some merit -- do not justify protracted delay.

While the government has been arguing for some years about notifying workers, public attention was drawn to the issue by recent Freedom of Information Act disclosures obtained by Ralph Nader's Public Citizen Health Research Group. The documents reveal that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has collected detailed information on a quarter of a million workers exposed to toxic chemicals on the job.

While some of these workers have been made aware of their exposure by their company or union, others have not. The occupational safety institute asked for funds to begin notification this year, but the request was turned down by HHS because of budget pressures and because some officials thought that medical evidence did not support full- scale notification. Dr. Edward Brandt, then assistant HHS secretary for health, was quoted recently as observing, "All of us are exposed to toxic substances every day, and if people told us every day, we would just worry all day."

Perhaps so. And it's also worth noting that people tend to ignore far more prevalent known threats to health -- such as smoking and poor diets -- while overreacting to less common chemical threats. But many workers are known to have been exposed to far higher toxic doses than the general public encounters, and some could now take preventive measures if they knew of their ris

What is needed is a careful effort by the occupational safety institute to determine where and when real hazards exist, and to give affected workers pertinent information to help them decide whether they are threatened. This could give rise to some litigation against employers, as some HHS officials fear. But it is noteworthy that the Chemical Manufacturers Association states it has consistently favored full disclosure of hazards to workers and a federal standard to ensure that result.

Some workers and communities probably will be unduly alarmed by the Nader group's wholesale revelations. But that result might have been avoided if the government had embarked earlier upon the careful notification program that is now called for.