Understanding the Role of Regulatory Inspections

Understanding the Role of Regulatory Inspections

Waste and recycling is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States. Our activities and facilities are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and a host of state and local agencies. From time to time, inspectors from these regulatory agencies visit facilities to review operations and ensure compliance with applicable laws, rules and regulations.

Inspections are a critical function of our government’s efforts to protect the environment, enhance workplace safety and increase transportation safety. During these visits, an inspector or group of inspectors will got to a facility to determine if the activities and operations are being conducted in compliance with applicable permit conditions, laws, rules and regulations. The inspector(s) will ask questions and may collect samples, take photographs and review records. Ideally, inspections should not disrupt operations.

An inspection can be a stressful event for both the operator and the regulator. However, the anxiety of a regulatory inspection can be greatly reduced with an understanding of each party’s responsibilities, coupled with a healthy dose of respect and cooperation.

It is important to remember that inspectors are the representatives of the governmental agencies and they probably have the legal authority and responsibility to enter the property, review the operations and determine compliance.

When an inspector shows up at your door for an inspection, the following tips will help you complete the review in a timely and efficient manner:

  1. Be professional and courteous.
  2. Ask for and obtain proper identification. Protect your organization and make sure the inspector is legitimate before turning over any sensitive information. 
  3. Ask the inspector about the scope of the investigation. Is this a “normal” review or is the inspector looking for something specific?
  4. Follow your standard operating procedures, which may include placing a telephone call to management or legal counsel.
  5. If you are served with a search warrant or if you are informed that the inspection is part of a criminal investigation, you should immediately contact a lawyer to assist you. 
  6. Protect confidential information. While the inspector may have the legal right and responsibility to review certain records, you should discuss the procedures for identifying and protecting trade secret information.
  7. Communicate your safety policy with the inspectors and make sure that everyone in the inspection party has proper personal protective equipment while touring the facility.
  8. A supervisor or manager should be designated to accompany the inspectors during their visit. 
  9. Take notes of what was reviewed and what questions were asked.
  10. Do not interfere with the inspection, as the inspector may have the legal right and responsibility to review certain records.

The length of time that an inspection takes will be determined by the scope and conditions at the site. In some cases, inspections are brief, while other inspections can take hours. Typically, the inspection process is divided into six stages:

  1. Announcement and Explanation of Scope: Upon arrival, inspectors will meet with the on-site manager or supervisor to introduce themselves and review the purpose of their visit.  The inspector may ask for specific records or ask to take a walk through the facility to review operations.
  2. Facility Tour: Inspectors will observe activities and will ask questions about specific processes that are taking place within the facility. The inspectors also will look for new processes or equipment that are not part of the existing operating permit.
  3. Sampling and Documenting: Inspectors may take photographs, collect samples or use equipment to monitor environmental quality. Some of the common items that are sampled include soil, water, air, noise and on-site waste materials.
  4. Records Review: Inspectors may ask to review records, including scale tickets to calculate the amount of materials that have been delivered to a facility.
  5. Wrap-up: During the wrap-up meeting, inspectors and operators should review the results of the inspection. This is the time to review any areas of concern and discuss items that were found to be non-compliant. Inspectors may give you a time frame to correct problem areas before a Notice of Violation is issued. The wrap-up meeting is a good time to review the inspector’s report and correct any wrong or misinformation before the report becomes final and is placed into the facility’s compliance record. 
  6. Follow-up: If any areas of concern were observed during the inspection, it is likely that inspectors will return to the site to determine if corrective actions have been taken before they issue a warning letter or formal Notice of Violation. Anytime a regulator finds a violation, it is important for the operator to address the issue by taking immediate actions to correct the issue and return to compliance. 

Inspections by regulators will continue to be a normal aspect of managing a solid waste facility.  Therefore, operators should be prepared and know what to do when inspectors walk in the door.  Basically, operators need to be certain that paperwork is up-to-date, in proper order and readily available. Managers should designate a team of employees at the facility who will be responsible for meeting with inspectors and accompanying them during the inspection.

It’s also a good idea to have a readily available “escort kit” that contains clipboards, notebooks, pens, camera and sampling containers (in the event you want to split samples with the regulator). Facility operators should also have extra personal protective equipment (PPE) available because as the facility operator you are responsible for the safety of visitors to your site. If an inspector shows up without the proper PPE, you may need to issue a hard hat, high visibility vest and other personal protective equipment necessary to ensure his or her safety.

It’s important to periodically review with employees the organization’s standard operating procedures for inspections to make sure employees know what actions to take when inspectors arrive. Being prepared for an inspection and creating a mutually respectful and cooperative environment during the inspection will help both the regulator and the operator complete the inspection. 

Will Flower is general manager with Winters Bros. Waste Systems in Long Island, N.Y.

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