President Carter yesterday cleared the way for issuance of a controversial regulation to limit textile workers' exposure to cotton dust after hearing a strong plea from Labor Secretary Ray Marshall to reject revisions that would weaken it.
Carter's decision represented at least a partial reversal of position from Monday, when chief economic advisor Charles L. Schultze wrote Marshall that the president wanted cost-cutting alternatives prepared in the interests of fighting inflation.
Some unspecified modifications were agreed to in a 45-minute White House meeting attended by Carter, Vice President Mondale, Marshall, Schultze and other administration officials, but Labor Department officials - almost ecstatic in their reaction - said "there is no significant change . . . no reduction in worker protection."
Schultze, in briefing reporters after the meeting, said there were 'no winners or losers' and agreed that "no diminution" of worker protection was envisioned in the changes.
He said "costs will be lowered" but declined to estimates the amount. He also declined to discuss what modifications were made on grounds that details were still being worked out.
But he confirmed that engineering controls to reduce the amount of airborne cotton dust - a key requirement of the Labor Department's proposed exposure standard - had been retained.
The Council on Wage and Price Stability had estimated that $125 million in industry compliance costs could be cut by emphasizing respirators and other protective devices over more costly engineering controls. Marshall argued that the former have been found effective in controlling byssinosis, or brown lung, a debilitating and sometimes fatal lisease suffered by an estimated 35,000 textile workers who have been exposed to cotton dust.
According to Marshall, compliance would require $625 million in new equipment and $84 million in additional annual operating costs, an assertion challenged by the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, which contends that it would cost $2.8 billion to try to meet proposed exposure levels that are "technologically infeasible."
The administration's intense intramural fight over the cotton dust standard had been viewed as a stest of how far White House economic advisers might go in clamping down on cost-creating government regulations in their campaign against inflation. Similar moves have been made to encourage a relaxation of air-pollution-control rules.
But cotton dust is a highly emotional issue, and Schultze's earlier move to delay issuance of the order while the White House could assess its inflationary impact triggered outcries from unions and other groups.
Shortly before yesterday's meeting, 16 members of the House Education and Labor Committee, including seven subcommittee chairmen, strongly protested the White House intervention, charging in a letter that it "threaten[ed] to undermine the basic procedures" mandated by Congress in occupational safety and health legislation. The letter pointedly noted a Carter campaign assertion that worker exposure to toxic chemicals, dust and other hazards "cannot be tolerated."
Labor Department officials said the new standard will be issued "in a matter of days," indicating that the government will now be able to meet a Friday deadline set by a federal judge for a specific date for the order's issuance. Tomorrow's deadline was set at a hearing earlier yesterday.
At the court hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Howard F. Corcoran, again expressing exasperation at the government's delay in issuing the standard, said he expected "very definite action" by tomorrow. He indicated he would grant an order the rules if it fails to promise to do so quickly. The textile workers union filed a motion for such an order shortly after the hearing.
With the standard having been delayed since the Nixon administration, Corcoran said, "I don't think 48 hours will kill anyone." But he added, "I don't want any excuses on Friday morning."
Meanwhile, the cross fire of criticism continued with unions attacking the president's intervention and the textile industry challenging the Labor Department's assessment of the inflationary impact of the proposed rules.
A. F. Grospiron, president of the Oil, Chemicals and Atomic Workers, some of those members in cotton-seed oil mills, accused Carter in a letter of "political interference with a statutory process." He likened it to intervention by President Nixon's campaign committee to delay development committee to delay development of the cotton dust rule in 1972. He called on Carter to "reject the cynicism of those in your administration who put profits over life."
In a separate development, Carter has decided to increase the 1.3 billion-pound quota on imposed beef by 200 million pounds, according to sources.
Administration officials had considered removing the quotas as an anti-inflation move, but settled on the increase, in part because of strong pressure from cattlemen to maintain the restriction.