WASHINGTON (AP) _ District of Columbia jail employees filed a lawsuit Friday to force the city to relieve inmate overcrowding, claiming conditions pose a threat to workers' health and safety.

''The close and crowded living quarters within which the inmates must endure have elevated the inmates' level of tension and anxiety to dangerous levels,'' the suit said. ''As a result, the inmates' tempers and emotions and the correctional employees, in particular the correctional officers, must work in an environment where there is constantly the threat of violence.''

The suit asks the D.C. Superior Court to issue an injunction that would force the city to reduce the number of inmates at the jail to 1,356, the maximum the jail was designed to hold.

The jail population is currently twice that amount.

The suit was filed on behalf of all 882 jail employees by Local 1550 of the American Federation of Government Employees.

The suit said there are not enough guards to properly control and keep watch over the inmates.

The lawsuit also said the ventilation and communications systems are defective and violate the city code that provides for a healthy and safe working environment at work sites.

Union spokesman Bernard Demczuk said the jail inmates could be moved to the city's recently expanded Lorton Prison in northern Virginia, to a juvenile detention center in Laurel, Md., to federal prisons or possibly military facilities.

But he said where the inmates would be placed ''is not our problem. Our problem is the safety of our employees.''

The suit said due to the overcrowding, ''there are more knives and weapons among the inmates.''

''The correctional officers are constantly under extreme stress and must endure verbal abuse, the threat of physical abuse and, at least twice daily, actual physical assault,'' the suit said.

Named as defendents in the lawsuit are Mayor Marion Barry Jr. and Department of Corrections director James Palmer.

Barry's press secretary, Annette Samuels, said city officials had not seen the suit and would have no comment.