Prepare for Unannounced Site Visits

Sept. 28, 2010

In 1910, William D. Boyce gave fleet managers a sound piece of advice when he urged members of the organization he had founded, the Boy Scouts of America, to “Be Prepared.”

Any fleet manager who has ever experienced an unannounced visit from a government agency, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), knows only too well the wisdom of being prepared.

Bob Turner, CEM, is director of the fleet management department for the City of St. Petersburg, Fla., which once operated a car wash and a stream wash for hosing down heavy equipment. The water flowed into a drain system that was pumped out every two or three months. About 10 years ago, he installed a recycling system in the wash area. What Turner didn't know was that the wastewater flowed into the stormwater system and not into the sewer.

“The wash facility is about 65 feet from our fuel site,” he says. “Representatives from the EPA, which, in our case, are from the county Department of Health, have been coming by regularly to monitor the fuel site. These visits have been going on for 10 or 12 years—after we installed the recycling wash system.”

About a year ago, during a routine inspection, a new inspector noticed the wash facility.

“The visit happened on a day when we had had a lot of rain, and water was running off the wash area into the storm drain,” says Turner. “The inspector told her superiors in Tampa that she thought the area needed an inspection.”

The Tampa team agreed, and not long afterward, we had an unannounced inspection of the wash facility.

“They found that we were in violation,” says Turner. “We didn't have a permit on our recycling system, which hadn't been a requirement when it was installed, and the wash water emptied into the storm drain, which we didn't know. As a result, we were fined about $10,000.”

As soon as Turner was told the wash facility was in violation, he shut it down. Subsequently, Turner was given an opportunity to present his side of the situation at a hearing before the agency. At the hearing, he pointed out that the EPA had been inspecting the area for nearly a dozen years and no one had ever said anything about the wash facility. He told them a professional company came in every three months to clean out the recycling tank and that he thought he'd been doing everything correctly.

In response, the agency told Turner he could find all the regulations in a manual that was updated every two or three years.

“I told them I had looked at the last manual, and there was no way in the world I could tell what had been changed from previous manuals,” he says. “I suggested they consider an amendment that identified the sections that had been changed.”

The outcome was that the fine was reduced to $2,700.

“They were very nice but they wouldn't eliminate the fine altogether,” says Turner. “We weren't angry or upset. It's just a bureaucracy, and we understand that. As for the new inspector, I think her performance is probably judged by how many fees she collects.”

As of today, the wash facility is still closed. According to Turner, bringing it up to code would require installation of a cover over the drain, connecting everything to the sanitary system and building a wall to keep the over-spray from leaving the wash area, among a host of other things.

“We'd possibly have to replace the whole wash system,” he says. “And I'm just not sure it's worth doing.”

Another fleet manager, John McCorkhill, fleet director for the City of Lynchburg, Va., recently visited a municipal repair shop in a major city that had spent $500,000 for a large truck wash system four or five years ago. It still hasn't been installed.

“They couldn't get a state license to install the equipment because of its proximity to a stream,” he says.

The “snowball” effect

David Greenlee, CEM, is fleet manager for the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. in Fairbanks, Alaska.

“On the pipeline, we have quite a lot of contact with government agencies,” he says. “We're a private entity, but we have relationships with many government agencies that are responsible for pipeline oversight.”

Those relationships fall by the wayside if, for whatever reason, you have a violation that attracts attention, says Greenlee.

“If you do, they're going to come in,” he says. “All the agencies, to a certain extent, communicate with each other. If they suspect a problem—safety, environmental or whatever—or find a problem during an audit or a compliance review, it snowballs and everyone joins in.”

Once you're on their radar screen, they'll be paying you a visit, says John Brewington, CEM, president of Brewington and Co., a consulting firm.

“If you have multiple injuries on the job, or if you report a serious injury, you'll never get out from underneath the inspections,” says Roger Thompson, vice president of management, fleet and facilities with consulting firm Bucher, Willis & Ratliff in, Kansas City, Mo. “They're going to come back over and over again.”

On the long list of items that can trigger an unannounced government visit is one that gets special attention from agencies—a complaint. Whether a complaint is made by a disgruntled employee, an ex-employee or a passerby, the result is the same.

“Instead of coming to the fleet or the shop for information, they call the regulatory system to investigate,” says Brewington.

Get ready for it
You can take steps to prepare for unexpected inspections. Thompson recommends preparing for unannounced visits by making sure you have a formal program in place.

“Write down your safety mission and goals,” says Thompson. “You have to have formal guidelines or procedures in place that everyone follows.

And be sure to put it in writing.

“Documentation should be someplace where anybody can locate it,” says McCorkhill. “We strive for paperless systems, but not everyone has access to a computer, so in this case keeping a paper backup is a must.”

Create a checklist and complete inspections—and the checklist—regularly. Keep all of the details on record.

“A checklist should show that you've done inspections, the dates you did them, any problems you found and what corrective action was taken to resolve the program,” says Thompson. “Dates are very important. If you don't include the dates, inspectors will want to know if the situation went on for months before it was corrected or was corrected immediately.”

Brewington says he often finds that shops have manuals on how to operate equipment safely, but few of them have written policies for safety procedures.

“For example, if you're going to have a temporary fuel storage facility on a construction site, one of the first things you should do is identify the local codes that pertain to that storage facility—containment, setback distances, and so forth,” he says. “There may also be regulations that the local fire marshal, EPA or OSHA have enacted. You need to know what they are to avoid any hassles down the road.”

Alsyeska Pipeline Service Co. Fleet Manager David Greenlee, ECM, left, explains to Leslie Teders, a shop technician, the importance of proper equipment labels, expecially if government agencies pay an unannounced visit. The sign Greenlee is pointing to explains what liquids can be deposited into this sump.
On projects of any significance, the project owner should know who to contact locally to cover your regulatory bases.

Greenlee suggests fleet professionals assign a specific person or hire someone to be responsible for environmental issues.

“Have them find out exactly what the regulations are,” he says. “Have them do a walk through and look at your processing and records. Tell them you expect a potential audit by government agencies and you want to know what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong.”

Greenlee also suggests contacting the government agency directly and telling them you want to make sure you're in compliance.

“Usually they like that,” he says. “They're very helpful if they know you're trying to improve.”

Ask for an inspection

McCorkhill invited inspectors into the Lynchburg facility.

”I didn't want them coming here unannounced, so I phoned OSHA,” he says. “I told them I was very fortunate to work in a first-rate facility that had opened in 2001, but since facilities age, I wanted them to tell us if we were doing anything we shouldn't be. I asked them to delineate any OSHA policies and procedures we were not meeting so we could have them corrected immediately.”

The OSHA representatives arrived and found 26 minor items.

“They gave us two months to introduce corrective measures,” says McCorkhill. “The visit actually ended up being an enjoyable experience.”

The proactive approach worked well for McCorkhill, because it's been more than a year since the OSHA visit, and they haven't returned. However, if you're operating an older facility, or worse, if you don't have inspection procedures in place, you might want to re-think offering such an invitation.

Shared Problem Protection

Sometimes, especially with environmental waste material, fleet managers find themselves

Shared Problem Protection

Sometimes, especially with environmental waste material, fleet managers find themselves in a situation where they share a drain system with other facilities, says David Greenlee, fleet manager, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.

“If the shop introduces some type of exotic chemical into the shared drain, it can wind up back in recycled oil, for example, and play havoc with the refining process at the refinery,” he says.

To avoid THIS, Greenlee suggests:

  • Know what you're putting down the drains.
  • Have a system in place to identify all wastes you generate.
  • Keep wastes segregated.
  • Keep a log of waste disposal.
  • Label wastes correctly.
  • Deal with waste appropriately and regularly.
If you get an unannounced inspection from a govenment agency, inspectors will be alert for proper labeling on containers.
When There's a Knock On the Door

When you open the door to find an OSHA, EPA or other agency inspector standing there, it's too late to do anything but invite them in. However, while it may be a fait accompli, there are still things you can do to make the best of the situation.

John Brewington, founder and president of Brewington & Co. a provider of consultant services to fleets, suggests:

  • Contact the appropriate people in your organization (management, safety, and/or risk management) and make them aware of the ongoing inspection.
  • Be hospitable, maintain control of the situation and learn as much as possible about their reasons for being there. Document who they are—names, contact information, etc.
  • Whenever possible, answer “yes” or “no.” Don't volunteer any information over and above what they ask for.
  • Move the visitors through the facility or location as quickly as possible.
  • Make notes on what the inspectors said and what information you provided.
  • Update the appropriate people in your organization on the inspection details.
Make certain policies and procedures are formalized and in writing. Documentation is critical during unannounced inspections.
In this story:
John McCorkhill, CEM, is fleet director for the City of Lynchburg, Va.