A rare kind word for government regulation was heard today from the authors of a new Senate study, who said that the benefits of regulation, while often difficult to measure, still save thousands of lives and prevent billions of dollars in damage a year to property and the environment.

The report by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team is intended as a backfire against the growing challenge by business to federal health, safety and environmental regulations.

"At a time of soaring costs and double digit inflation, people are questioning what government can or should do," said Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.), chairman of the governmental operations committee, which commissioned the report.

The MIT report, he added, "is a reminder that regulation does more than cost money: It saves lives, avoids injuries and protects the public against market place failures."

Ribicoff called the study the first major effort to assemble information about the benefits of federal health and safety regulations. The authors, from MIT's Center for Policy Alternatives, reviewed 350 studies on the issue, but did not make their own new analysis of regulatory costs and benefits.

The authors also cautioned against the expanding practice of risk-benefit regulatory analysis, saying that although the economic costs of governmental controls on industry are easy to calculate the social costs of health and safety hazards aren't measured so easily.

"Many studies avoid discussing who gains and who loses, if anyone, when a regulation is put in place to control a hazard," the MIT group said. "There is no appropriate way to put a dollar value on the costs of pain and suffering endured throughout a lifetime by a child who is the victim of a sleepwear fire."

The MIT study is the most recent entry in the intense congressional debate over federal regulation. With increasing success, business groups are protesting that health and safety regulations go too far, adding inflationary costs to goods and services beyond the point that Congress intended.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration is preparing to begin a faster, stronger program next month to control cancer-causing chemicals in the workplace. But it is facing a half-dozen separate lawsuits in federal courts challenging the legality of the new regulatory approach.

OSHA is also the target of legislative proposals to limit its authority to investigate potential workplace safety hazards, requiring the agency to concentrate on the most serious threats. Sen. Richard Schweicker (R-Pa.), author of one proposal to exempt up to 90 per cent of the nation's workplaces from regular OSHA safety inspections, expects that the Senate Labor Committee will begin drafting a bill next month. Some sources in organized labor predict, however, that the Senate leadership will not permit a vote on the measure this year.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule this term on an industry challenge to a major OSHA regulation controlling workers' exposure to benzene, a common industrial chemical that can cause cancer.

OSHA's position is that because scientists cannot determine what a safe exposure to benzene might be, exposures should be reduced as low as is "feasible" to provide the maximum protection for workers.

The American Petroleum Institute, OSHA's principal adversary, contends that OSHA is obliged to show that very low exposure limits provide an additional margin of safety that bears some reasonable relation to the cost of controlling exposures.

The MIT study noted that in controversies such as this, scientists cannot measure risk accurately because of continuing uncertainty about the causes of cancer, and the long lag between exposure to a cancer agent and development of cancer.