Mrs. Essie Briggs of Columbia, S.C., is not likely to be pleased with what Ronald Reagan is doing to textile workers. She put in 53 years at a cotton mill where she breathed the dense cotton dust that gave her the lung disease called byssinosis. By the mid-’60s, she recalls, “I’d go in there and by 10 o’clock, I’d have to pant to get my breath. I had a bending job, too, over the spinning frames, and I just could not breathe bending over.”
Mrs. Briggs, now 77 and retired, is working to achieve justice for tens of thousands of textile workers exposed to cotton dust daily or disabled because of this occupational disease. A few days ago, Ronald Reagan answered her and her co-victims. He moved to dismantle the Department of Labor’s standard to limit worker exposure to cotton dust in textile plants.
This standard, which goes into full effect in 1984, was developed after 10 years of deliberation by three previous administrations under Nixon, Ford and Carter. It has been subjected to lengthy technical hearings at the Department of Labor. The transcripts fill 104,000 pages. Nearly 120,000 active or retired cotton mill workers suffer some degree of chronic byssinosis. The department last year estimated that the current standard, which Reagan and Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan want to delay and weaken, would save 75,000 of these workers from this chronic, disabling lung disease.
The Reagan announcement is the first move in a systematic drive to cripple the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) mission to make the work place safer and healthier for millions of Americans. There is no subtlety here; there is merely an application of what Reagan and his regulatory adviser, James Miller, have spoken and written about before and during last year’s campaign.
Miller has urged that textile workers be required to wear respirators—a second rate device compared to more effective engineering methods to clean the air in the mills that several companies have already installed. Reagan and Miller should spend a day wearing respirators in a hot textile mill to observe first-hand how workers develop skin rashes and find their breathing (especially if they already suffer from the lung disease) even more difficult.
The immediate pretext for the reopening of the byssinosis standard is to examine the costs and benefits of worker-health regulations generally, according to former construction executive Thorne G. Auchter, who now heads OSHA. There is no mention by Auchter that OSHA has already analyzed exhaustively the cost-benefits, even though the 1970 federal job-safety law does not require measuring worker’s lives in company dollars.
OSHA found that each case of “brown lung” as byssinosis is called down in the Piedmont area, costs the worker $100,852 in lost wages and excess medical costs alone. This figure does not include the real but intangible pain and suffering of workers and their families of the costs to taxpayers for disability payments or the costs to industry in decreased productivity and higher insurance premiums. By this conservative standard alone, OSHA projects benefits of more than $7.5 billion or more than 10 times the amount of $650 million which the agency’s analysis estimate the industry would have to spend to comply with the standard.
Some companies, including small ones like the Linn-Cornier Corp., have declared that they are already 80 to 90 percent in compliance three years ahead of the 1984 deadline. These firms have found an added bonus—increased productivity and better quality control.
Last June, World Business Weekly explicitly credited the OSHA cotton dust standard with stimulating the long-overdue modernization of the American textile industry.
But for the Reagan ideologues, neither facts, nor compassion, nor even the performance of some model companies can divert them from their fanatical mission to end federal health and safety regulations.
With the drum beat of the national chamber of commerce slogans in their ears, the Reaganites are losing touch with a deeply rooted American demand for a safe work place. How many blue-collar-worker demonstrations in front of the White House will they need to convince them that their cruelty and corporatism will lead to a prompt political boomerang among the populace, including those who supported Reagan last November?