Here's a bizarre article about the EPA's recent decision to change the cost of a human life from $8.04 million to $7.22 million, or a decrease of about 10%. This is done for the purpose of calculating whether or not a given regulation is worth the cost it would impose on industry.
Of course, if someone actually died because of corporate malfeasance, this wouldn't be the amount that their heirs would receive. That amount would take into account a lot of other things, including the person's salary and the company's ability to pay. It may be less, it may be more. And obviously, there's no way to legitimately place a price tag on a person's life.
To be honest, this idea sounds more callous than it is. The prices used by the EPA (and by other regulatory agencies) are indicative of our willingness to take risks. As the article explains, take the amount of money that would induce a person to take a 1-in-10000 risk of death and multiply it by 10000. So if the average American is willing to take such a risk for $500, that means that the economic "value of a life" would be $5 million. So back to the EPA's numbers - the EPA has apparently determined that people are willing to take $722 or so in exchange for a 1-in-10000 risk of death by pollution, and that this number is down from the $800 or so people would have been willing to accept when the economy was better. In other words, the EPA believes that people are willing to accept more risk of loss of life from environmental degradation in exchange for a more dynamic economy.
Personally, I think the number should be higher. I personally would be more willing to accept lower payment for a risk that I could control - say, a product or a job - than for a risk that would be ambient - say, dirty air or water. The numbers reflect this to some extent - the DoT, for example, uses a number around $5 million. But I don't think they reflect this accurately, at least not for me. How about for you?
I also have to wonder how this relates to smoking bans, the latest fad in governmental risk control. Now that smoking bans have been in place in some locales for a significant period of time, we can gauge the economic impact that they have on the local economy, and we can compare that to the number of deaths that occur from prolonged exposure to second-hand smoke. Someone with more time on their hands should do this.