The human body, we used to be told, is worth 98 cents in chemicals. The sum was always exactly that -- a piece of information imparted to you as a kid when it was thought you were getting too big for your britches. It was then that you were told what you were really worth -- not quite a buck.

The point, of course, was not to put a monetary value on the human body, but to invoke humility, to say in a different way the old truth about ashes to ashes and dust to dust. It took the Reagan administration to take this childhood metaphor literally and try to implement it as a matter of economic policy. And it took the Supreme Court to remind the administration that both health and life are, in fact, priceless.

In a 5-to-3 decision, the court ruled that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the dreaded OSHA, must protect workers from exposure to toxic substances to the greatest extent feasible without regard to the balance between costs and benefits. This was a setback to the Reagan administration which had argued that sometimes it just cost too much to protect the health of American workers.

The dicision is history and its application may be limited to the textile industry where "brown lung disease" is a problem. But it highlights the thinking of the administration which holds that you canerect some sort of scale in the American work place, put cost on one side and benefits on the other and see which one tips the balance. In other words, the contest is between dollars and human health -- an unequal contest at best. Without government intervening, dollars would always win.

In the case of the textile industry, it claimed that the cost of making the work place free of the dust that can produce brown lung disease is far greater than the chances that anyone could get the disease. The law required the industry to install giant fans to remove cottom dust from the air. The fans were not only expensive, but, according to the industry, not the best way to handle the problem. The industry sued and the industry lost.

What is appalling here is not the industry's mentality, but the government's endorsement of it. Industry is industry and left to its own devices and conscience, it will try to increase its profits any way it can. For years and years, American industry, like industry the world over, used workers like they were raw materials -- cheap, disposable and easily replaceable. It employed children when it could, worked them as hard as it could, paid them as little as it could and fought efforts to end the parctise as hard as it could.

Things have changed since the era of child labor, but it was not so long ago that a Ford Motor Company official did the sort of balancing act that the Reagan people seem to admire. He figured that an $11 improvement in the fuel tanks of an estimated 12.5 million cars and trucks would save 180 lives. He put a $200,000 price on each life lost and concluded it would be cheaper for Ford to stick with the old fuel tanks until the government forced it to make a better one.

This is the hard, cold math of business and as shocking as it is, there are clearly times when it makes some sense to businessmen. There has to be a point where it just becomes too expensive to protect the health of a worker and where the chances of injury or disease is also slight. But this is a theoretical point and it is constructed wholly from the viewpoint of the businessman. To the worker, his life and his health are priceless. There can be no balance. There can be no other considerations.

But the Reagan adminstration says otherwise. It would somehow like to balance profits against health, as if one is the equal of the other. In theory, this would increase producation but in practice it would amount to once again giving industry carte blanche while at the same time removing any incentive to find a way to both make a profit and protect the health and safety of workers. But more than that, it would repeal in spirit the decision made by congress that nothing -- certainly not cost -- is more important than the health and safety of workers. After all, a businessman who loses his business can start al over again. A worker who loses his health, has lost pretty much everything.