October 8, 2014 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 6Comment

It was too late for textile workers Grover Hardin and Louis Harrell to be helped by OSHA’s cotton dust standard. By 1978 when the rule was issued, both men suffered from byssinosis (a.k.a., brown lung disease) and would die from it. Harrell’s face and Hardin’s words, however, would have meaning for other textile workers and possibly help them be protected from the consequences of breathing cotton dust.

Harrell and Hardin, along with images of other textile workers taken by photojournalist Earl Dotter, appeared in the OSHA booklet “Cotton Dust: Worker Health Alert.” It was issued in the final year of the Carter Administration. Soon after, the booklet was ordered to be destroyed.

The story of what happened to the cotton dust booklet when the Reagan Administration took office is told in the latest issue of the journal New Solutions. It’s a special open-access edition to mark the 100th anniversary of the American Public Health Association’s Occupational Health and Safety Section (until 1955 known as the Industrial Hygiene Section.) Glenn Shor, PhD, MPP tells the tale, explaining that orders to destroy the booklet came from Reagan appointee OSHA chief, Thorne Auchter, during his first week in office. Shor’s article includes the March 1981 memo which reads:

 “Assistant Secretary Auchter has indicated that the following publications no longer represent agency policy and should be withdrawn from circulation and destroyed (including warehouse stocks): Cotton Dust: Worker Health Alert (#3065), Cotton Dust Standard: Management’s Role (#3066) and Cotton Dust Can Destroy Your Lungs Poster (#3064).

It wasn’t just the cotton dust booklets that irked the anti-labor Reagan Administration. Shor explains that three worker-centered films commissioned by President Carter’s OSHA chief, Eula Bingham, PhD, also incensed the Reaganites. Auchter directed OSHA staff to “recall” the films. Shor writes that Auchter

“threatened to withhold funding for union health and safety programs that did not return the films.”

Gladly, not everyone complied. The films Auchter wanted abolished, “Worker to Worker” and “Can’t Take No More,” were saved by some and now appear on YouTube. They are some of the most popular offerings on Mark Catlin’s YouTube collection of worker health and safety films.

How did Auchter explain his decision to destroy the cotton dust booklet? Shor, who is Secretary of the APHA OHS Section and member of its 100th anniversary commemoration committee, tracked down a statement from the former assistant secretary. As reported in April 1981 by Jeff Nesmith of the Cox News Service, Auchter said:

 “That photo makes a dramatic statement that clearly establishes a biased viewpoint in the cotton dust issue…While I certainly understand and sympathize with the victims of cotton dust exposure, I do not believe it’s fair and proper to lend the weight of the government on one side or the other in such a controversial area.”

I don’t know how, or if, Auchter was pressed to explain what he meant by a “biased viewpoint.” There was substantial scientific evidence that exposure to cotton dust was associated with disabling and deadly lung disease. And “lend[ing] the weight of the government on one side” —in other words, protecting workers’ health — is what Congress intended when it passed the OSH Act in 1970.

Shor’s article includes a reprint of the 8-page booklet. See for yourself the OSHA booklet that was banned—-an act that set the stage for what would come during the Reagan-era OSHA.


Link to articles in the special, open-access edition of New Solutions (here)



6 thoughts on “Byssinosis, an infamous booklet, and Reagan-era OSHA

  1. Is the booklet available online outside the WRLC library system? One has to log onto the library website to access the booklet. Certainly copyright does not apply, does it?

  2. That link worked; thanks. It appears from the article that Auchter ordered the booklets recalled and destroyed, and then reissued without the cover photograph. That implies that the actual content of the booklet was re-released with the approval of Auchter. Do I understand correctly?

  3. I was at DOL during the Carter administration. My office was next to Eulah’s and as you may also know, I was very involved in the OSHA legislation as a Senate Staff counsel. We conducted a number of hearings on Byssinosis at that time to the somewhat exclusion of Asbestos since Congress had done Black Lung and was doing Brown Lung there was a concern that “White Lung” would overwhelm the legislators. I left office when Pres. Reagan was inaugurated [actually the day before] but I well remember Thorne Aucter. Despite his destructive actions until cooler heads prevailed I know from subsequent meetings and conferences that he remained unrepentant. I am happy that Glen did the history.

    Don Elisburg

  4. My old paper copy of the 29 CFR regs has next to the cotton dust exposure limit the signature of ronald “ray-gun ” reagan in micro print. Maybe a collector’s item at this point ! Surprised it got past the thought police.

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