The Justice Department was sharply criticized yesterday for its failure to bring criminal charges against companies and individuals involved in the work-related deaths of their employes through negligence and safety violations.

The criticism was contained in a study by the private, Chicago-based National Safe Worker Institute, which estimates that 128,000 workers have died in industrial accidents since enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1971.

"Even though the {act} included criminal provisions from the beginning, the federal government has yet to take legal action resulting in the imprisonment of a single individual," the study said. "This report is about . . . the unwillingness of the U.S. Department of Justice to successfully prosecute even the most callous safety violator."

The report also charges that under the Reagan administration, the number of cases referred by the Labor Department to Justice for criminal prosecution has declined sharply.

Justice Department spokesman John Russell said the cases are handled without political interference. "We've had a number of referrals, and we will take steps to prosecute where it is warranted," Russell said, adding that all the cases are reviewed by "professional career attorneys. Those cases that are declined are declined on the merits and are not considered prosecutable. Politics has nothing to do with it."

Frank White, deputy assistant labor secretary for health and occupational safety, said he believes the law is adequate and is being enforced. "We review every fatality. If there are willful violations involved, we consider those cases for criminal referral." But he added, "It is hard to prove willfulness -- and even harder to prove criminal intent."

Joseph A. Kinney, an author of the report, charged that workplace deaths and injuries have increased up to 20 percent in the last two years. "Failure to enforce the law costs lives," he said.

Under President Jimmy Carter, the study said, an average of one criminal case a month was referred to the Justice Department for prosecution. Under the Reagan administration, it found, referrals have fallen to about one a year.

It also found that the only related case to come to trial during the Reagan administration involved an assault on an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector, rather than a safety violation. In that 1982 case, the Heckert Construction Co. was fined $10,000 and put on probation.

"This failure to prosecute serious cases creates a ripple effect throughout American workplaces, jeopardizing the lives and morale of both managers and workers, while contributing to a lack of confidence in federal laws," the report said.

It conceded that prosecutions are hampered by weak penalties and difficulties in proving criminal intent.

"Since most employers do not intend to kill or maim their workers, motive is seldom present even in cases where reckless decisions are made that cost lives or result in serious injuries," the report said. Maximum penalty under the OSHA statute is six months in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The report said the Justice Department is considering cases involving Union Carbide Corp., Lancaster Battery Corp., Aerles Corp., Allied Plumbing Co., Kenny Construction and an unidentified company. The five named cases have been awaiting decisions for five to 19 months.

Kinney, the institute's executive director, has said he started the study after his brother was killed in a workplace accident.