The Reagan administration and the US Supreme Court appear to be moving on a collision course in the matter of regulating American business. In a major decision June 17, the court by a 5-to-3 vote backed stringent cotton dust safety standards for the textile industry. Facing a question it sidestepped a year ago, the court ruled that the government does not have to consider cost-benefit studies when protecting the safety of workers.
The ruling is exactly contrary to the President's drive to cut government restrictions. The court brushed aside a White House request to delay the cotton dust ruling. Shortly after taking office, President Reagan had asked for more time while his administration considers changing the strict standards and imposing a cost-benefit test for rules.
The ruling upholds Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards established in 1978 and aimed at freeing textile mills of most cotton dust. The invisible dust has been traced to brown lung, a debilitating disease.
The industry charges that the new standard (as little as 200 micrograms per cubic meter) will cost $2.5 billion for filtering equipment and alterations and price American textiles out of the world market.
OSHA has estimated the cost at closer to $500 million.
Speaking for the majority, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. said that the 1970 law that established OSHA requires safety rules to be "feasible," a word that he said means "capable of being done."
Nowhere in the law does it require OSHA to make a cost- benefit analysis before making a new rule, said Justice Brennan.
Congress knew that the safety act would be costly for industry but saw it as worth the price for a "safe and healthful working environment," he added. "Congress viewed the costs of health and safety as a cost of doing business."
Justice William H. Rehnquist, dissenting, said that the law was unconstitutional because Congress had delegated too much power to OSHA. Other dissenters were Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice Potter Stewart. Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. did not participate in the decision.
The cotton dust decision is part of a multiple blow to the Reagan deregulation crusade this week. The court also on June 17 ruled, 8 to 1, that federal mine inspectors may make surprise inspections of mine sites to check for safety hazards. Mine operators had charged that the warrantless searches were unconstitutional.
Earlier this week, the court gave the federal government broad authority to implement the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, moving almost simultaneously with a Reagan administration move to weaken federal oversight of strip mines.
Sheldon Samuels, director of health and environment for the AFL/CIO's industrial unions, predicted the cotton dust ruling will have a "chilling" effect on President Reagan's efforts to weaken safety rules.
Although the Reagan administration already has set the wheels in motion for changing the cotton dust standards, Mr. Samuels said that OSHA now would have more difficulty justifying those changes.
In other rulings June 17 the Supreme Court:
* Ruled, 5 to 4, that employers are not required to adjust work hours for employees who are in the military reserve.
* Gave a broad interpretation on the term "enterprise" under Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations laws, opening the way for the Department of Justice to investigate businesses with suspected links to organized crime.