The Obama administration has dramatically stepped up enforcement of workplace safety laws, according to a new study by OMB Watch that also finds evidence of stronger stances on consumer health and environmental regulations.
In 2009, the number of citations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration leapt to about 68,100, or more than double the number in the final year of the Bush administration. For this year, citations soared again, totaling almost 114,000 by mid-July.
To account for the change in administrations, the report began its count at Jan. 20 of each year. Also up were citations for so-called "willful" violations, which in 2009 more than quintupled to 1,166, compared with 203 the preceding year.
"What we see now is a real strategy, a real focus and that focus is going after repeat violators and serious violators," said Matt Madia, regulatory policy analyst at OMB Watch, a liberal-leaning group that generally favors more stringent enforcement.
Similar trends were found at other agencies, although the contrast with the Bush administration was not as sharp. In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration issued more warning letters to companies that were aimed at stopping certain practices, the report found. At the Environmental Protection Agency, the average fine for Clean Water Act violations increased by almost one-third during the administration's first 18 months, but the rate at which penalties were issued for serious violations was down slightly in comparison to that of the Bush administration.
Attempts to get comment from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a leading business lobby often critical of government regulation, were unsuccessful.
At the Mercatus Center, a market-oriented research organization at George Mason University, senior research fellow Jerry Ellig was critical of the report, which he said contains no information on whether heightened enforcement is making workplaces or consumers safer.
"It's always easy to report on your level of activity, but activities don't always mean results," Ellig said.
Indeed, a West Virginia coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners in April came two months after the Mine Safety and Health Administration began a fatality prevention program. And this year's BP oil spill underscored lax oversight by the Minerals Management Service that continued after Obama took office. MMS has since been dismantled, with its regulatory duties handed to the newly created Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
In Madia's view, the administration is having to overcome both the Bush's administration lack of interest in aggressive regulation as well as a longer history of disdain for government's role.
"It's going to take years to fix this stuff," he said.