A high-ranking official of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration told OSHA's top managers at a seminar last week to "kick ass and take names" in an effort to rid the agency of problem employes, according to participants in the annual management retreat at Williamsburg.

James R. Meadows, promoted this week to deputy assistant secretary, made that phrase the management theme of part of the three-day session, exhorting the officials to be more aggressive in sweeping out problem workers. OSHA officials posted the letters "KATN" in a meeting room.

An anonymous unofficial memo widely circulated at OSHA headquarters following the April 17-19 retreat at the Williamsburg Hilton said Meadows told the managers OSHA "needs to do more to rid itself of troublemakers and if civil service regulations were a hindrance to 'Go ahead and terminate them, and let them hire an attorney' " to try to get their jobs back.

Two OSHA regional administrators who attended the session, James Lake of Seattle and Donald MacKenzie of Boston, said yesterday that Meadows and several other officials urged them to use the "kick ass" approach in running the agency.

But both officials said they were not told to violate personnel regulations.

OSHA spokesman Jack McDavitt said the talks by Meadows and others "were not aimed at stifling dissent or anything, but it was the idea that there are some people in the agency who don't produce, and we need to take steps to have them produce or replace them with people who do." He said the memo describing the sessions was "not accurate."

The seminars run by OSHA chief Robert A. Rowland came as the job-safety agency faces morale problems and increasing congressional criticism for its failure to enact more new standards to regulate toxic substances in the work place.

Labor Secretary-designate William E. Brock said at his confirmation hearing Tuesday that his top priority is to improve department morale and that he also will carefully review OSHA operations and decisions, including its decision not to adopt a federal standard requiring toilets and clean drinking water for farm hands.

Rowland, who has not yet been confirmed, could not be reached for comment. Meadows, who formerly worked for the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission and came to OSHA eight months ago, also could not be reached.

When he gave his talk, Meadows was Rowland's special assistant. He was made a top deputy this week, supervising OSHA's regional offices.

The union representing department employes, Local 12 of the American Federation of Government Employees, sent Brock a copy of the memo yesterday with a letter saying that the tactics suggested by OSHA officials would violate the law and result in lengthy, costly reinstatement appeals.

Union president Michael Urquhart said Brock should investigate Meadows' actions and consider removing him.

MacKenzie, OSHA's top New England official, has been with the agency since its creation in 1971. He characterized Meadows' remarks as "idle talk" by a "young and inexperienced" manager.

"I have been in government 23 years, and if I went into a meeting, I would know better than to talk about 'kicking ass and taking names' because I understand perceptions. But somebody new to government might not understand the perceptions that arise," MacKenzie said.