SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) _ Cutting equipment sharp enough to saw through steel bars may not concern most manufacturers, but it's a different story when the factory is in a county jail.

Hampden County in western Massachusetts is seeking approval from the state Legislature to finance a shop to build computer tables and secretarial chairs. The county at first considered refurbishing shipping pallets, but officials dropped the idea after discovering that would require saws strong enough to cut nails - or cell bars.

Hampden is one of a growing number of county jails across the nation looking for ways to put prisoners to work behind bars, spurred by a need to cut costs and keep inmates busy.

''Although most states have industry programs in their prisons, we didn't expect much activity at the county level, because inmates are incarcerated for such relatively short periods of time,'' said Bob Greiser, director of operations for the Institute for Economic and Policy Studies in Alexandria, Va.

''It is an area that is really starting to develop,'' he said.

Berkshire County, also in western Massachusetts, considering having its prisoners turn out dog tags. Middlesex County has been peddling prisoner-made mattresses and pillows for 12 years and is considering whether to let released inmates stay on the job.

Between 40 and 50 county jails throughout the nation have industries or are setting up programs, said Greiser, whose institute completed a nationwide study of jail industry programs this spring.

''Most inmates have never had a job. And if they get one after they are released, they have trouble keeping it, because they just haven't had that experience that most people take for granted,'' said Judith Schloegel, director for the National Center for Innovations in Corrections.

The program at the 460-inmate Middlesex House of Corrections in Billerica is one of the oldest, started in 1973.

''I can't think of any negatives,'' current Sheriff John P. McGonigle said.

He said he hopes to expand the mattress and pillow factory to include windowshades and eventually a shop that could also provide jobs for released inmates having trouble finding work.

''We may have them for a shorter period of time than the state prisons, but we are more likely to get those that are being incarcerated for the first time and we have a better chance to do something with them,'' McGonigle said.

The maximum time an inmate may serve in a county jail in Massachusetts is two years.

Each of the seven inmates working at the factory earns $3.50 a day. The county withholds 15 percent of the inmates' paychecks for room and board, McGonigle said, prisoners also get the time credited against their sentences.

The mattresses, which go for $35.50, and the pillows, which cost $5.50, are sold to hospitals and other state institutions, he said.

''We make enough profit to maintain the shop, pay the inmates and be able to add one or two inmates to the workforce every year,'' McGonigle said.

Hampden County jail officials have worked with Springfield city officials to set up a furniture industry for the past three years.

Local firms assigned executives to provide marketing and management advice in establishing and financing the program, which will employ 10 inmates at 50 cents an hour each.

The Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce had projected a $200,000 profit the first year based on sales of 2,000 desks and 1,500 chairs.

Program director Joe Trevathan said that figure may be high ''but I think we should break even.''