The Federal Aviation Administration came under congressional fire yesterday for removing air traffic controllers who are dependent on insulin from their jobs.

"That's discrimination," said Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.) at a House civil service subcommittee hearing.

"That's discrimination in favor of safety, sir," said Dr. William Hark, manager of the FAA's medical specialties division.

Sikorski accused the FAA of disqualifying controllers based on fear, rumors and a false report that a controller had been incapacitated by diabetes and found lying on the floor of his control tower.

"The individual . . . was not on duty, not found on the floor and was not incapacitated," Sikorski said. He was on his way to work when he felt dizzy, pulled over to have a doughnut, and asked his supervisor if he could rest for 30 minutes before starting his shift.

The FAA testified that the garbled report of the incident merely alerted the flight surgeon to the presence of insulin-dependent diabetics in some flight towers, which he had not known because, until 18 months ago, certification was handled regionally.

Darlene Freeman, the FAA's deputy associate administrator for aviation standards, said that it is a medically accepted fact that insulin-dependent diabetics risk suffering episodes of low blood sugar that may cause "impaired vision and cognitive function to seizures" and that early symptoms are sometimes not recognized by the diabetic or co-workers.

Twenty-two controllers have received temporary medical disqualification while their medical records are being reviewed, she said. "Those determined to require insulin . . . will be offered consideration for other vacancies within the agency."

Sikorski said the individuals had been told they would be probably make only about 40 percent of their former salaries in their new positions.

Stephen J. Pazarena, an Indianapolis air traffic controller who has been reassigned to administrative duties, said statements that diabetics often do not recognize the early warning signs of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, are "outrageous, and demonstrate their total lack of knowledge and understanding of this disease."

According to the American Diabetes Association, 12 million Americans are diabetic.

Dr. Robert Ratner, director of the diabetes center at George Washington University Medical Center, told the panel, "I cannot stand before you and say that there are no risks to hiring an individual requiring insulin treatment . . . . On the other hand, I believe that the regulatory agencies have established acceptable limits of risks by virtue of who they already are willing to hire {such as individuals with mild high blood pressure} and . . . I believe the hiring of individuals with insulin-treated diabetes can be done without sacrificing public safety."

He said that diabetics with a history of unconscious reactions or those individuals who have hypoglycemia without warning can and should be screened out of sensitive jobs.

Hark, in an interview, said the FAA agrees that disqualifications should be made on a "case-by-case basis," but "we've got to have a process we can rely on that will select only people" who can function safely as air traffic controllers. "We can't accept known risks that have any significance to them at all," Hark said. "We can't accept more accidents to give them what they want."