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American Textile Manufacturers Institute v. Donovan

15 January, 2016 - 09:30

American Textile Manufacturers Institute v. Donovan

452 U.S. 490 (1981)

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (Act) “to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions.…“The Act authorizes the Secretary of Labor to establish, after notice and opportunity to comment, mandatory nationwide standards governing health and safety in the workplace. In 1978, the Secretary, acting through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), promulgated a standard limiting occupational exposure to cotton dust, an airborne particle byproduct of the preparation and manufacture of cotton products, exposure to which produces a “constellation of respiratory effects” known as “byssinosis.” This disease was one of the expressly recognized health hazards that led to passage of the Act.

Petitioners in these consolidated cases representing the interests of the cotton industry, challenged the validity of the “Cotton Dust Standard” in the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit pursuant to § 6 (f) of the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 655 (f). They contend in this Court, as they did below, that the Act requires OSHA to demonstrate that its Standard reflects a reasonable relationship between the costs and benefits associated with the Standard. Respondents, the Secretary of Labor and two labor organizations, counter that Congress balanced the costs and benefits in the Act itself, and that the Act should therefore be construed not to require OSHA to do so. They interpret the Act as mandating that OSHA enact the most protective standard possible to eliminate a significant risk of material health impairment, subject to the constraints of economic and technological feasibility.

The Court of Appeals held that the Act did not require OSHA to compare costs and benefits.

We granted certiorari, 449 U.S. 817 (1980), to resolve this important question, which was presented but not decided in last Term’s Industrial Union Dept. v. American Petroleum Institute, 448 U.S. 607 (1980), and to decide other issues related to the Cotton Dust Standard.

* * *

Not until the early 1960’s was byssinosis recognized in the United States as a distinct occupational hazard associated with cotton mills. In 1966, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), a private organization, recommended that exposure to total cotton dust be limited to a “threshold limit value” of 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter of air (1,000 g/m3.) averaged over an 8-hour workday. See 43 Fed. Reg. 27351, col. 1 (1978). The United States Government first regulated exposure to cotton dust in 1968, when the Secretary of Labor, pursuant to the Walsh-Healey Act, 41 U.S.C. 35 (e), promulgated airborne contaminant threshold limit values, applicable to public contractors, that included the 1,000 g/m 3 limit for total cotton dust. 34 Fed. Reg. 7953 (1969). Following passage of the Act in 1970, the 1,000 g/m3. standard was adopted as an “established Federal standard” under 6 (a) of the Act, 84 Stat. 1593, 29 U.S.C. 655 (a), a provision designed to guarantee immediate protection of workers for the period between enactment of the statute and promulgation of permanent standards.

That same year, the Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), pursuant to the Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 669(a)(3), 671 (d)(2), submitted to the Secretary of Labor a recommendation for a cotton dust standard with a permissible exposure limit (PEL) that “should be set at the lowest level feasible, but in no case at an environmental concentration as high as 0.2 mg lint-free cotton dust/cu m,” or 200 g/m3. of lint-free respirable dust. Several months later, OSHA published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 39 Fed.Reg. 44769 (1974), requesting comments from interested parties on the NIOSH recommendation and other related matters. Soon thereafter, the Textile Worker’s Union of America, joined by the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group, petitioned the Secretary, urging a more stringent PEL of 100 g/m3.

On December 28, 1976, OSHA published a proposal to replace the existing federal standard on cotton dust with a new permanent standard, pursuant to § 6(b)(5) of the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 655(b)(5). 41 Fed.Reg. 56498. The proposed standard contained a PEL of 200 g/m 3 of vertical elutriated lint-free respirable cotton dust for all segments of the cotton industry. Ibid.It also suggested an implementation strategy for achieving the PEL that relied on respirators for the short term and engineering controls for the long-term. OSHA invited interested parties to submit written comments within a 90-day period.

* * *

The starting point of our analysis is the language of the statute itself. Section 6(b)(5) of the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 655(b)(5) (emphasis added), provides:

The Secretary, in promulgating standards dealing with toxic materials or harmful physical agents under this subsection, shall set the standard which most adequately assures, to the extent feasible, on the basis of the best available evidence, that no employee will suffer material impairment of health or functional capacity even if such employee has regular exposure to the hazard dealt with by such standard for the period of his working life. Although their interpretations differ, all parties agree that the phrase “to the extent feasible” contains the critical language in § 6(b)(5) for purposes of these cases.

The plain meaning of the word “feasible” supports respondents’ interpretation of the statute. According to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language 831 (1976), “feasible” means “capable of being done, executed, or effected.” In accord, the Oxford English Dictionary 116 (1933) (“Capable of being done, accomplished or carried out”); Funk & Wagnalls New “Standard” Dictionary of the English Language 903 (1957) (“That may be done, performed or effected”). Thus, § 6(b)(5) directs the Secretary to issue the standard that “most adequately assures…that no employee will suffer material impairment of health,” limited only by the extent to which this is “capable of being done.” In effect then, as the Court of Appeals held, Congress itself defined the basic relationship between costs and benefits, by placing the “benefit” of worker health above all other considerations save those making attainment of this “benefit” unachievable. Any standard based on a balancing of costs and benefits by the Secretary that strikes a different balance than that struck by Congress would be inconsistent with the command set forth in § 6(b)(5). Thus, cost-benefit analysis by OSHA is not required by the statute because feasibility analysis is.

When Congress has intended that an agency engage in cost-benefit analysis, it has clearly indicated such intent on the face of the statute. One early example is the Flood Control Act of 1936, 33 U.S.C. § 701:

[T]he Federal Government should improve or participate in the improvement of navigable waters or their tributaries, including watersheds thereof, for flood control purposes if the benefits to whomsoever they may accrue are in excess of the estimated costs, and if the lives and social security of people are otherwise adversely affected. (emphasis added)

A more recent example is the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act Amendments of 1978, providing that offshore drilling operations shall use the best available and safest technologies which the Secretary determines to be economically feasible, wherever failure of equipment would have a significant effect on safety, health, or the environment, except where the Secretary determines that theincremental benefits are clearly insufficient to justify the incremental costs of using such technologies.

These and other statutes demonstrate that Congress uses specific language when intending that an agency engage in cost-benefit analysis. Certainly in light of its ordinary meaning, the word “feasible” cannot be construed to articulate such congressional intent. We therefore reject the argument that Congress required cost-benefit analysis in § 6(b)(5).


  1. What is byssinosis? Why should byssinosis be anything that the textile companies are responsible for, ethically or legally? If it is well-known that textile workers get cotton dust in their systems and develop brown lung, don’t they nevertheless choose to work there and assume the risk of all injuries?
  2. By imposing costs on the textile industry, what will be the net effect on US textile manufacturing jobs?
  3. How is byssinosis a “negative externality” that is not paid for by either the manufacturer or the consumer of textile products? How should the market, to be fair and efficient, adjust for these negative externalities other than by setting a reasonable standard that shares the burden between manufacturers and their employees? Should all the burden be on the manufacturer?