Approaches Toward Valuation of Human Life by Certain Federal Agencies

Gao ID: PAD-82-21 November 9, 1981

GAO conducted a survey of federal agencies responsible for public health and safety to ascertain whether they assign a specific dollar valuation to human life and safety in analyzing program and regulation costs and benefits.

The survey of a number of government agencies with responsibility for health and safety regulation indicates that they have little in common in how they assign dollar values to premature death, injury, or illness. The survey revealed that, while most agencies do not use explicit valuations as a matter of policy, many have used such values in specific analyses. The Centers for Disease Control have used a variety of figures as proxies for the economic costs and benefits associated with disease and disease prevention. The Mine Safety and Health Administration has used a value of $165,000 per case avoided in measuring the benefits and costs of its Respirable Coal Dust in Mines Regulation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission assigns a value of $5 million per premature death. Agencies in the Department of Transportation have traditionally used explicit values in evaluating the economic benefits and costs of accident prevention programs based on airline settlements of wrongful death suits. The total cost of injuries is estimated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for each of a variety of product types. Even when policymakers do not make explicit valuations, the outcomes of budgetary and regulatory policymaking reveal implicit valuations. Benefit-cost analyses underestimate benefits, particularly those for health and safety; tell the policymaker nothing about the other implications of choices even within the program area; and present the benefits and costs of programs in terms of their present discounted values.

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