The Benzene Case: Industrial Union v American Petroleum

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

The Supreme Court ruled on the benzene case in 1980; this case focused on setting regulations for potential carcinogens and was between the American Petroleum Institute and the Industrial Union Department. This lesson summarizes the results of that case.


The Supreme Court is the highest court of the land (at least in the United States), and its rulings determine how future laws can be structured. One important case we should be familiar with is the Benzene Case of 1980. But before we can understand the ruling in the Benzene Case, we need to have some background information.

First, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the federal agency responsible for developing safety standards to keep American workers safe in the workplace. It's no surprise that there are often disagreements between OSHA and the industries or companies that have to abide by OSHA's regulations. Ultimately, industry equates more regulations with higher costs, so it's not uncommon for OSHA to face push back after setting a new regulation.

Of specific importance to this lesson is the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which gave the U.S. Secretary of Labor the right to regulate substances called carcinogens. These are any substances believed to elevate the risk of cancer in humans.

Benzene Case

This push back is exactly what happened between the Industrial Union Department and the American Petroleum Institute (API). The Industrial Union Department was housed within the AFL-CIO, an organization representing a collection of union groups, and the American Petroleum Institute is a trade group representing the oil and gas industry in the USA.

The disagreement occurred when the Secretary of Labor adjusted the airborne standard for benzene, a naturally occurring molecule found in crude oil, and thus one workers in the oil industry are frequently exposed to. The original exposure standard was 10 ppm (parts per million), but after new research discovered a link between benzene and leukemia, the Secretary of Labor changed the new exposure standard to 1 ppm (over the course of a standard 8 hour work day). It's important to note here that the research indicated that benzene's harmful effects on humans occurred at an exposure greater than 100 ppm.

Now you're probably wondering how this new standard was developed, and that's a great question - it's the same question American Petroleum had too! The specific regulatory act about setting exposure limits states that limits should be the lowest technologically feasible limit that doesn't unjustly impair the industry being regulated. This language sounds vague, and that's because it is! It's the go-to phrase used when an exact threshold hasn't been identified yet.

API filed a lawsuit over this new standard, It argued that the Secretary of Labor over-stepped the position's authority and set too strict an exposure limit for benzene.

The chemical structure of benzene is C6H6.
benzene molecular structure

Supreme Court Ruling

The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where the Court ruled in favor of API. It agreed (in a 4-5 decision) that the new benzene standard was too strict. But how exactly did the Court come to this decision? Well, it was looking for 2 pieces of information.

First, the Court wanted to see if the Secretary of Labor had clear evidence that indicated benzene posed such a serious risk to employees. In the Benzene Case, it was decided that no, there wasn't sufficient evidence supporting the stricter limits on benzene, so this was enough to make a decision.

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