THE SUPREME COURT'S decision upholding the Carter administration's cotton dust control standard is an important and deserved victory for the nation's textile workers. Byssinosis, a disabling lung disease that workers may contract from inhaling cotton plant particles, should not be a hazard in the modern work place, and eliminating it appears within the financial capability of an industry already four years into a multi-billion dollar modernization effort.

In upholding the 1978 cotton dust standard, the court not only dismissed the administration's request for delay of the case until the standard had been subjected to a cost-benefit test; it also rejected the textile manufacturers' claim that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration must try to equalize the costs and benefits of its regulations. This does not mean, however, that the cost and benefit counters around town should seek other employment. The court's decision applies directly to only one part of one piece of legislation -- worker exposure standards for toxic and other physically harmful substances under the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act. The court noted that, in enacting this legislation, Congress was mindful of the significant costs to employers likely to be involved, but it required only that the standards set by "feasible" in terms of available technology and long-run industry finances. Congress, of course, could change its mind of this. Moreover, such overriding considerations may not be found in other areas of government regulation or in the full range of worker health and safety matters.

There are clearly some risks that simply should not be accepted as a condition of regular empolyment. It industry can't afford to control these risks as part of the cost of doing business -- something that is rarely really the case -- then the products shouldn't be produced. There is, however, a large gray area in which risks are hard to assess precisely and the benefits of more complicated and expensive control mechanisms are unclear. There is also much room for study and argument about what degree of protection is "economically feasible" short of closing the mill and shipping the jobs to Taiwan. Unbiased analysis of all these issues is an essential part of making sensible decisions and, in the end, helpful to workers as well as employers.

The cotton dust decision, however, is an important reminder of the limitations of a mechanistic approach to regulatory policy. Cost-benefit comparison is a notoriously imprecise and easily manipulated technnique -- witness the whole history of water project justification. Where human life and suffering are major factors, it won't work at all.