The Carter administration unveiled its controversial cotton dust standard yesterday and portrayed it as a model of how a government regulation can be both effective and economical. It was promptly attacked as ineffective by labor and uneconomical by industry.
"I sincerely believe that it is an excellent standard that will protect the health of textile workers without burdening the industry with unnecessary costs," Labor Secretary Ray Marshall said in announcing the long-awaited standard to reduce textile workers exposure to lung-damaging cotton dust.
Marshall was joined at the unveiling by the presidential economic adviser Charles L. Schultze. This unusual move was aimed at making the best of their well-publicized bureaucratic spat this month over whether the regulation should be modified to cut costs and thereby ease inflationary pressures. It was a dispute so intense that President Carter had to arbitrate personally, apparently yielding more to Marshall than Schultze.
Yesterday they were singing the same happy tune, with Schultze echoing Marshall's declaration that the standard would protect workers at a "minimal" cost to employers.
However, they hadn't even finished before industry and labor groups dashed off statements attacking the standard and, as usually happens with such regulations, challenging them in court.
"We are deeply disappointed in the terms of this standard," said Murray H. Finley, president of the Amalganated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. "They failed to protect the health of more than half a million textile workers exposed to cotton dust in the United States."
"The administration has raised doubts as to whether it is really serious about fighting inflation through moderation of government regulations," said Lon Mann, president of the National Cotton Council.
The standard would establish various exposure levels for different segments of the textile industry, slashing limits for yard manufacturing, the most hazardous, from 1,000 to 200 milocrograms per cubic meter of air, but establishing higher limits of 500 and 750 micrograms for operations where toxic ingredients are less concentrated.
It gives the industry four years to install effective engineering controls, such as ventilation equipment, but requires development of compliance programs within a year, with the new machinery to be phased in gradually and respirators to be used in the meantime. Monitoring of air quality and health are also required.
The standard, which will be promulgated officially by Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on Friday, is less stringent than a draft regulation left behind by the Ford administration, which recommended 200 micrograms for all phases of the industry.
OSHA officials said the agency decided, long before the White House talks, that such limits were unnecessary.
The Ford administration draft was estimated to cost $2.7 billion in new equipment. Marshall estimates the new standard will cost $625 million, although industry officials contend the cost will be more like $2 billion. Marshall said his estimate was not altered by concessions won by Schultze, but acknowledged they would save money as time goes on.
Schultze identified the White House changes as setting a four-year deadline for engineering controls (instead of leaving the deadline to OSHA) and specifying that variances can be obtained if alternatives to engineering controls are found to achieve the same results (the law requires this but it hasn't been spelled out in OSHA regulations).
Respirators "as we know them today" would not qualify for variances, said Grover Wrenn, OSHA's director of health standards. At one point, White House anti-inflation advisers suggested greater reliance on respirators, a proposal rejected by Marshall as unsatisfactory.
The standard is the culmination of a decade-long drive by ACTWU and "brown-lung" victims to control cotton dust, which Marshall estimated threatens 600,000 textile workers and currently afflicts about 35,000. "Brown lung," or byssinosis, can be disabling and sometimes fatal.
Labor and industry complaints stemmed only partly from changes made - or not made - in the White House discussions. For instance, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute said the exposure standard, which was not an issue at the White House is "technologically impossible" to meet. ACTWU attacked the exposure standard as too low and criticized the four-year timetable.