Environmental Compliance: How to Shift from Reactive to Proactive

by Pamela Berner – Director, NAES Environmental Services

When an agency conducts an inspection, an owner initiates an audit or an incident attracts attention to our operations, it sets wheels in motion. A notice of noncompliance or other negative action drives a flurry of activity to remedy the wrong and demonstrate that we’ve mitigated the issue, identified corrective actions and started planning for long-term protection from recurrence.

At NAES, we try to manage such a situation efficiently and in timely fashion. Paying swift attention to an environmental incident or finding, illustrates our commitment to doing the right thing, being responsive and minimizing any negative impact. However, these reactive churns can generate a lot of stress, derail our schedule and budget, and reflect negatively on an otherwise solid environmental record.

Taking a proactive approach to compliance, on the other hand, changes the game dramatically. By identifying and mitigating the risks in your operation that could contribute to system or program failures before they have a chance to occur, you can avoid costly unplanned corrective measures, possible enforcement actions and potential damage to your client relationship.

But where do we start our shift from reactive to proactive mode, so that we anticipate challenges, develop preventive plans, put them into action – and hopefully avoid a blemish on our operating record? First, consider the following proactive habits and whether you practice them at your site:

  • Communicate Expectations – Along with safety, compliance is one of our NAES Core Values. Share and emphasize this corporate expectation at the plant level. Integrate it into meetings and translate it into work-planning, projects and solutions. If you make compliance a primary component of your day-to-day activities – make it an element of your ‘plant normal’ – it will help to minimize the exceptions that may occur.
  • Acknowledge Proactive Behaviors, Ideas and Actions – Lead by example, encourage your people to express ideas, suggestions and concerns. Often the folks who are closest to an issue come up with the best solutions to compliance challenges before they result in fire fights. Engage employees in discussions of how you as a team can do better. Recognize a job well done without incidents, an inspection that yields no findings, or an assessment that identifies gaps that are quickly closed.
  • Recognize Potential Weaknesses –Don’t wait for that incident to occur to take action. If you have an issue that has caused a near-miss or two, conduct a thorough root cause analysis, identify corrective actions and implement them before you’re in crisis mode or have put your environmental performance record in jeopardy. Budget for engineering solutions that can put the plant in a better position to avoid upsets, exceedances or events. Seek expert advice, be receptive to inputs and recommendations, and implement proven best practices.
  • Maintain Knowledge of Your Regulatory Landscape –Assemble all compliance requirements and obligations that apply to your facility and keep them at your fingertips. Keep in mind that federal, state and local regulations evolve, that permits need to be renewed and updated, that plans require updates to contact information and resources. Recognize that these regulations and documents impact operations and potentially your response to an event. Put a mechanism in place to review them regularly. Are you maintaining records of alerts and updates provided by the regulatory agencies…by NAES Environmental Services…by your owner? Are your people attending training and monitoring available tools to support the tasks at hand? Are they taking advantage of NAES resources and tools and implementing the NAES Environmental Management Procedure? Does your team know when the next permit application is due Compliance is a continuum: are your plant programs, plans and procedures continuing to be in a good place?
  • Train Employees – Verify that your folks know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Do they understand the regulatory basis for that inspection or this test they’re completing? Educating and training them will keep them current with the requirements and aware of the importance of their tasks. Also, make sure that you as a group have the scope of requirements and obligations well in hand, so you’re not always wondering whether you’re really performing as well as you think you are. Above all, see to it that environmental compliance is integrated into everyone’s responsibilities – that it’s not viewed as one person’s obligation.
  • Validate Performance – Make sure your perception of compliance is anchored in reality. Whenever you start to feel comfortable in the belief that you’re doing all the right things and doing them well, take some time to check and see. Walk the plant and look at things from an environmental perspective. Confirm whether managers are reviewing logs and data to ensure their quality and compliance. Remind everyone regularly of what’s important to the plant and that successful performance requires ongoing environmental vigilance. As a 24 hour-a-day operations company, we have to be ready to troubleshoot problems at a moment’s notice to ensure the plant’s availability – which makes it easy to become acclimated to a reactive mode of thinking. But proactively managing our environmental compliance can reduce the potential for environmental incidents, keep us in good standing with our clients as well as our regulatory agencies, and move us toward a culture of empowerment as we continue to strive for operational excellence.