Investigators found more than 600 safety and health violations and recommended top-to-bottom changes in the way the government deals with workplace conditions at its weapons plants.

In a report issued Thursday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said worker safety had become so low a priority that a top manager said he viewed safety programs "as a hindrance to the facility's mission."A seven-month evaluation of the plants and laboratories in the nuclear weapons complex found 622 violations and fundamental defects in the way the Energy Department deals with workplace conditions, the OSHA report said.

"OSHA recommended that DOE make major organizational changes," said OSHA administrator Gerald F. Scannell. "Had this been a private sector (evaluation) there would have been a number of citations with proposed penalties."

What they found included:

-An office called Environment, Safety and Health that lacked the staff, money and power to effectively keep tabs on workplace conditions.

-A lack of incentive for plant operators to emphasize workplace safety.

-Safety orders from Washington that were "vague, inconsistent and in part ineffective."

-Minimal planning and budgeting for safety plans.

-Complaints from workers who said they were punished for pointing out unsafe conditions, and inadequate investigation of those complaints.

-Emergency medical workers were put at risk of contracting AIDS, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases because there was no policy requiring them to take proper precautions.

-"Serious record-keeping problems."

The Energy Department, which runs the nuclear weapons plants through privately contracted companies, said it took the criticism seriously.

Energy Secretary James Watkins this week ordered his assistant secretary to put together a new plan for training employees on safe work conditions and for monitoring worker safety at the nuclear factories and laboratories.

Watkins also directed the agency to begin linking performance-based payments to proof the contractors are meeting standards for worker safety and health.

Watkins has been critical of past administrations for ignoring environmental and worker safety problems.

OSHA said the plant and laboratory managers didn't demonstrate a commitment to a safe workplace, and one top-level manager told the evaluation team that workplace safety didn't warrant his total commitment.

"He saw the emphasis on safety and health as a hindrance to the facility's mission," the report said.

In years past, "the department felt it was perhaps exempt from some of these requirements," said Paul Ziemer, assistant secretary for environment, safety and health.