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U.S. Supreme Court

American Textile Mfrs. Inst., Inc. v. Donovan, 452 U.S. 490 (1981)

American Textile Mfrs. Inst., Inc. v. Donovan

No. 79-1429

Argued January 21, 1981

Decided June 17, 1981*

452 U.S. 490


Section 6(b)(5) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (Act) requires the Secretary of Labor (Secretary), in promulgating occupational safety and health standards dealing with toxic materials or harmful physical agents, to 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. Section 3(8) of the Act defines the term "occupational safety and health standard" as meaning a standard which requires conditions, or the adoption or use of practices, means, methods, operations, or processes, "reasonably necessary or appropriate" to provide safe or healthful employment and places of employment. Section 6(f) of the Act provides that the Secretary's determinations "shall be conclusive if supported by substantial evidence in the record considered as a whole." The Secretary, acting through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), promulgated the so-called Cotton Dust Standard limiting occupational exposure to cotton dust (an airborne particle byproduct of the preparation and manufacture of cotton products), exposure to which induces byssinosis, a serious and potentially disabling respiratory disease known in its more severe manifestations as "brown lung" disease. Estimates indicate that at least 35,000 employed and retired cotton mill workers, or 1 in 12, suffer from the most disabling form of byssinosis, and 100,000 employed and retired workers suffer from some form of the disease. The Standard sets permissible exposure levels to cotton dust for the different operations in the cotton industry. Implementation of the Standard depends primarily on a mix of engineering controls, such as installation of ventilation systems, and work practice controls, such as special floor-sweeping procedures. During the 4-year interim period permitted for full compliance with the Standard, employers are required to provide respirators to employees and to transfer employees

Page 452 U. S. 491

unable to wear respirators to another position, if available, having a dust level that meets the Standard's permissible exposure limit, with no loss of earnings or other employment rights or benefits. OSHA estimated the total industrywide cost of compliance as $656.5 million. Petitioners, representing the cotton industry, challenged the validity of the Standard in the Court of Appeals, contending, inter alia, that the Act requires OSHA to demonstrate that the Standard reflects a reasonable relationship between the costs and benefits associated with the Standard, that OSHA's determination of the Standard's "economic feasibility" was not supported by substantial evidence, and that the wage guarantee requirement was beyond OSHA's authority. The Court of Appeals upheld the Standard in all major respects. It held that the Act did not require OSHA to compare costs and benefits; that Congress itself balanced the costs and benefits in its mandate to OSHA under § 6(b)(5) to adopt the most protective feasible standard; and that OSHA's determination of economic feasibility was supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. The court also held that OSHA had authority to require employers to guarantee employees' wage and employment benefits following transfer because of inability to wear a respirator.


1. Cost-benefit analysis by OSHA in promulgating a standard under 6(b)(5) is not required by the Act because feasibility analysis is. Pp. 452 U. S. 506-522.

(a) The plain meaning of the word "feasible" is "capable of being done," and, 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 the worker's 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). Pp. 452 U. S. 508-512.

(b) Section 3(8), either alone or in tandem with § 6(b)(5), does not incorporate a cost-benefit requirement for standards dealing with toxic materials or harmful physical agents. Even if the phrase "reasonably necessary or appropriate" in § 3(8) might be construed to contemplate some balancing of costs and benefits, Congress specifically chose in § 6(b)(5) to impose separate and additional requirements for issuance of standards dealing with such materials and agents: it required that those standards be issued to prevent material health impairment

Page 452 U. S. 492

to the extent feasible. To interpret § 3(8) as imposing an additional and overriding cost-benefit analysis requirement on the issuance of § 6(b)(5) standards would eviscerate § 6(b)(5)'s "to the extent feasible" requirement. Pp. 452 U. S. 512-513.

(c) The Act's legislative history supports the conclusion that Congress itself, in § 6(b)(5), balanced the costs and benefits. There is no indication whatsoever that Congress intended OSHA to conduct its own cost-benefit analysis before promulgating a "toxic material" or "harmful physical agent" standard. Rather, not only does the history confirm that Congress meant "feasible," rather than "cost-benefit," when it used the former term, but it also shows that Congress understood that the Act would create substantial costs for employers, yet intended to impose such costs when necessary to create a safe and healthful working environment. Pp. 452 U. S. 514-522.

2. Whether or not, in the first instance, this Court would find OSHA's findings supported by substantial evidence, it cannot be said that the Court of Appeals, on the basis of the whole record, "misapprehended or grossly misapplied" the substantial evidence test when it upheld such findings. Pp. 452 U. S. 522-536.

3. Whether or not OSHA has the underlying authority to promulgate a wage guarantee requirement with respect to employees who are transferred to another position when they are unable to wear a respirator, OSHA failed to make the necessary determination or statement of reasons that this requirement was related to achievement of health and safety goals. Pp. 452 U. S. 536-540.

199 U.S. App.D.C. 54, 617 F.2d 636, affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

BRENNAN, .J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post p 452 U. S. 541. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,joined, post, p. 452 U. S. 543. POWELL, J., took no part in the decision of the cases.

Page 452 U. S. 493

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