A new report focusing on regulatory activity at the federal level concludes that various agencies are exercising their enforcement powers much more strenuously than in recent years, and are focusing their attention on industries and workplaces where employees are at greatest risk for injury and illness.

“The Obama Approach To Public Protection: Enforcement,” released by OMB Watch, points to Department of Labor statistics showing an increase in OSHA citations beginning in 2009 and accelerating dramatically in 2009 and 2010, suggesting that the “leash has been taken off” OSHA under the Obama administration, according to Matt Madia, OMB regulatory policy analyst and chief author of the report. Maida said that OSHA has created a “risk-based enforcement framework” and introduced or strengthened initiatives like the Severe Violator Enforcement Program and Federal Agency Targeting Inspection Program (FEDTARG), which focuses on federal workers and contractors supervised by the federal government in high-risk areas. In 2009, OSHA inspectors uncovered more than twice the number of violations under the FEDTARG program than in 2008.

“The agency also appears to be placing less emphasis on voluntary compliance and compliance assistance, strategies preferred under the Bush administration,” said Madia. “OSHA may be shifting its approach as it realizes voluntary compliance or compliance assistance programs do not adequately protect workers.”

The report also said the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA), like OSHA, is “targeting mines with historically poor safety records.” However, the backlog at the Federal Mines Safety & Health Review Commision makes that approach “unlikely to translate into improved conditions for miners in the near term,” said Madia.

The increased activity comes despite decades of budget cuts and staffing reductions, although Madia notes a recent reversal in this trend, with Congress approving significantly larger budgets for several key agencies.

Two high-profile tragedies - the blast at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine and the explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig – drew presidential attention to the issue of regulatory enforcement. Obama blamed management failures and legal loopholes for the Upper Big Branch disaster, which clamed the lives of 29 miners. “He then ordered the immediate deployment of inspectors to all mines with similar poor safety records and called for the Department of Labor to determine whether existing laws and regulations could be made more effective,” said Madia. In the aftermath of the BP-Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers, Obama called for better regulations, safety standards, and enforcement.

In addition to worker safety and health, the report also examined consumer safety and health, and environmental enforcement.

To see the report in its entirety, visit: http://www.ombwatch.org/files/regs/obamamidtermenforcementreport.pdf

OMB Watch is a nonprofit research and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting government accountability, citizen participation in public policy decisions, and the use of fiscal and regulatory policy to serve the public interest.