THE NEW head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Thorne G. Auchter, has selected the cotton-dust control standard as the first case for application of the administration's "cost-benefit" approach to federal regulation.He has asked the Supreme Court to delay its review of the Court of Appeals decision upholding the standard against industry attacks in order to allow his agency to reexamine the issue.

In some ways the cotton-dust issue is a curious choice for a test case. The need for reducing worker exposure to cotton dust -- the source of byssinosis or brown-lung disease -- has been debated, analyzed and litigated for over 10 years, as has the best way of doing it. This was hardly a rush to regulate. The 1978 standard is also a sensible and substantial retrenchment from the one originally proposed. Moreover, dramatic progress toward compliance has already been made, particularly in that segment of the textile industry that, after a massive modernization effort over the last four years, has now moved into a strong, internationally competitive position. The $25 billion in additional investment projected for the rest of the decade will, as a byproduct, bring much more of the industry into conformity with the control standards.

Reopening all parts of the standard will introduce undesirable uncertainty into the continuing modernization effort and, perhaps, confer an unfair competitive advantage on those firms that have not yet put in the required controls. It may, however, prove instructive to those advocates of cost-benefit analysis who see the technique as an easy way out of the difficult and inherently political questions involved in health and safety regulation.

Compared with many other industrial hazards in which the risks of exposure are uncertain and potentially related diseases are slow to develop, cotton-dust control benefits are relatively clear. Byssinosis has been reliably linked to cotton-dust inhalation; the disease develops quickly among those susceptible to it; the disability is progressive if exposure continues; and the costs of medical treatment, litigation of compensation cases and disability payments are substantial. Requiring workers to wear sufficiently protective face masks -- instead of installing ventilation systems as the standard requires -- is considered a feasible alternative only by people who haven't tried either wearing such a device for eight hours or supervising people who do.

All of this is laid our in the lengthy cost-benefit analysis of the cotton-dust standard done in 1979 at the direction of Congress. Further refinement of the study might suggest reconsideration of some parts of the standard. But no magic is to be expected. Analysis of this sort is a woefully imprecise act. (To call it a science is to invite gales of laughter from the economics profession that practices it.) Any honest analysis will show large and sometimes huge ranges in the estimates of even the most tangible sorts of costs and benefits. Even if these uncertainties could be resolved, we would still not know what value to place on reducing pain or avoiding premature death -- a matter that is essentially one of both policy and politics.

Comparing relative costs and benefits is, no doubt, a useful device for deciding among alternative regulations. But in the cotton-dust case and all the many others like it, no computation, simple or complex, can absolve Congress of its responsibility for seeing that industries do not pass off the real costs of doing business on either their workers, their communities or the general taxpayer.