How to work with your plant folks

Handshake and teamworkThis blog gives you some practical ideas on how to interact with your colleagues at the plants. Let’s start by taking a hard look at the plant manager. The degree to which your plant maintains its environmental compliance status depends largely on the attitude of the plant manager.

There are basically two types of plant managers. The first type understands the need to stay in compliance and will work with you to achieve that goal. The plant managers in this group understand the legal aspects of environmental compliance and will make sure that his staff works with you to make sure that the plant stays in compliance. Fortunately, most plant managers fall into this category. The second group of plant managers is made up of those people who consider environmental compliance a nuisance.

With the first group of plant managers, your work is fairly straightforward. All you need to do is to make sure that the plant personnel get the necessary corporate support to fix any deficiencies. Make sure they have the necessary resources to stay in compliance. As you go thorough the facility and notice a non-compliance situation, you should sit down with the plant manager or person in charge and go through what needs to be fixed. Your immediate focus should not be on preparing a plant visit or audit report that details all the environmental problems. The focus should be on getting the problems fixed as quickly as possible. For example, one of your central roles may be to help the plant prepare a capital appropriation request in order to obtain the necessary funding from corporate to get the issue resolved. If your financial resources are not sufficient to tackle all the problems, prioritize them and work on the ones with the most significant human health or environmental impact first.

By the way, once the problem is corrected, make sure you document the efforts your company has undertaken to resolve the issue. It never hurts to document your good faith efforts.

A few words of caution here. Try not to do everything for the plant even though it will make you real popular at the plant. You want to make sure that the plant personnel have ownership of any plans or documents that are specific to their operation. Support them by all means – but don’t do all the work for them. For example, you want to make sure that they are involved in the development of their Spill Prevention and Control Countermeasure Plan (SPCC), their hazardous material inventory form (Tier II report), their Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan, or their hazardous waste contingency plan. Most of these plans contain plant-specific information and documented inspections. Unless the plant personnel are involved in the development of these plans, they are not likely to have ownership and nothing will be done by way of follow-up or implementation.

For example, the RCRA contingency plan requires the facility to identify an on-site emergency coordinator and to list where hazardous wastes are accumulated. Tier II report requires the plant to show where they store certain hazardous chemicals. Since they know where they store their own chemicals, it makes sense for the plant to prepare its own inventory. It is fine to have outside consultants come in to assist the plant personnel in preparing their hazardous waste contingency plan or spill prevention plan. Just make sure the plant personnel are involved in the process. Otherwise, the plan will end up being just a nicely prepared document prepared by some outside consultants that sits on the plant manager’s bookshelf. No one will ever look at it, update it or implement it because there is no ownership at the plant. And when the agency inspectors come by to inspect the plans, they look for evidence of implementation. For example, if the plan calls for weekly inspections, the agency wants to see log book entries that demonstrate that. The inspectors will always check to make sure the plans are current and up-to-date.

angry manThe second group of plant managers looks upon environmental compliance as a hindrance to meeting their production goals. These folks are totally focused on numbers – meeting their production quotas and getting their bonuses – and they will do just about anything to circumvent environmental regulations. Worse yet – some of these managers also take an adversarial approach to the regulatory agencies. They see everything as “us versus them”. If you sense that the relationship between the plant management and the local agency staff is somewhere between antagonistic and hostile, you need to bring that situation to a halt as quickly as possible. Let senior management at headquarters know about it as well. It is a sad but true fact that many major enforcement actions can be traced back to a poor working relationship between the regulator and the regulated.

Interestingly enough, very often you will find these same plant managers pay a lot of attention to workers’ injuries while totally ignoring environmental compliance issues. The reason is quite simple. The monthly costs of safety non-compliance can be easily tracked by senior management through incident rates and workers comp costs. Environmental non-compliance costs, on the other hand, are much harder to track. These costs are often hidden in overhead and maintenance. As a result, senior management at the corporate level often set safety goals for their plants and reinforce them with safety performance bonuses for the plant managers. Lower incident rate translates to a larger year-end bonus. The attitudes of many of these plant managers are then shaped by such financial incentives and that explains why they pay much more attention to safety concerns than environmental issues. If you find yourself faced with such a situation, what you want to do is to work closely with safety manager. Try to incorporate some environmental training at the same time when you or your safety counterparts do safety training. For example: When you are doing OSHA’s hazard communication training, tack on at the end a session on emergency response training for those employees who handle hazardous wastes.

With this second group of plant managers, you will also need to make sure that the plant manager’s supervisor is informed of all non-compliance issues and extra efforts must be made to ensure follow-up. You want to find someone up the management ladder – above the plant manager’s level -who is cognizant of the need to stay in compliance. You will need the support of this senior corporate officer to help you put your program in place at the plant. In other words, you need a “champion” who can overrule the recalcitrant plant manager.  If such a person does not exist within your organization, you may want to think about moving on to another company.

You also need to be vigilant in making sure that you don’t become party to a “bad decision” making process. For example, if a plant manager should ever suggest to you or his staff in your presence that they “alter” or falsify a wastewater Discharge Monitoring Report or ship hazardous wastes to an unlicensed facility, you need to make your objections known in a highly visible and documented manner to everyone involved –  including the plant manager’s supervisor. The worst thing you can do for yourself and your company in this case is to “go along in order to get along”. In a highly regulated industry, silence on your part can be easily interpreted by the law enforcement agencies to mean acquiescence.

After all, you are supposed to be in charge of the environmental programs, aren’t you?

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