(Warning: this blog has very little to do with editing and proofreading and therefore some of you may prefer to skip it and carry on reading the Chicago Manual of Style or whatever)
First things first: this is most definitely not an exposé of the inner workings at the Environment Agency (EA) or a guide on how to trick your way past your friendly EA inspector. It is simply some basic guidance on how to make an inspection by the EA go as smoothly and painlessly as possible for all concerned. Some may (rightly) consider the points below to be nothing more than common sense, but during my time at the EA it never ceased to amaze me how often this common sense was lacking.
In recent years, documented guidance from the EA has been slashed as part of the Government’s red tape challenge; there is still some good guidance out there, but in my experience many operators are in need of some more fundamental advice, which I aim to provide here. Non-compliance with permits can cause reputational, financial and legal problems for a permit holder, not to mention leading to a lot of work at the EA. It’s in everyone’s interest to comply with an environmental permit.
Now, a few basic terms. For simplicity, this article relates to any visit by the EA with the aim of assessing compliance with an EA permit. This includes all styles and flavours of inspections and audits (hereafter grouped together as ‘inspections’ for convenience). The actual permit in question is not particularly relevant because the points below are generic and are not specific to any particular permitting regime. The place being inspected will generally be an industrial site, sometimes referred to as an installation or simply ‘site’. Similarly, the person from site who is hosting the inspection is generally referred to as the ‘operator’.
One more thing before I dive in: these words represent nothing more than my personal opinion. I no longer work at the EA and procedures there may have changed, but I would expect the following points to still have some relevance.
So, what should an operator do to survive an EA inspection?
- Know your own permit and establish for yourself whether you’re complying with it. In order to comply with the permit, you need to know what it actually says. The only way to do this is to read it, even though it may be rather dull. Once you’ve done that, it makes sense to work out for yourself whether you’re actually complying with it. If you’re not in compliance, do something about it.
- Know your own environmental management system (EMS). It’s no use having an ISO 14001-certified EMS if you can’t find the procedure that demonstrates compliance with a certain permit condition. Ensure your EMS is regularly updated and get rid of anything that is no longer required. Simply having a large number of folders or procedures is not likely to convince an inspector that everything is satisfactory.
- Get the right people in attendance. The inspector needs to speak to people who know about the site’s operations and also about compliance with the permit. Don’t try to intimidate the inspector by sheer strength of numbers on the operator’s side of the table: it won’t work and more people talking will inevitably make the inspection longer (which, let’s face it, nobody wants). It’s OK to call other people into the room to answer a specific question and then let them leave to go and do some real work. There’s no point in personnel attending if they have nothing to contribute and spend the whole time tapping away on their laptop or mobile phone instead.
- Read the inspector’s report when you receive it and take appropriate actions. It sometimes leaves an inspector with very little option if an operator repeatedly fails to make the necessary improvements to their EMS. Apart from anything else, there may be EA systems in place that will escalate repeated non-compliances: this will mean problems for the operator and more work for the inspector. Believe me when I say that inspectors and operators would all like an easy life and there’s only one way that this is likely to happen: by an operator complying with the permit.
- Treat anyone from the EA as you would like to be treated. This was rarely a major problem for me but some operators are certainly friendlier than others. Manners cost nothing and – even when trying to remain impartial and without deliberately intending to – an inspector may be slightly more lenient if he/she hasn’t been annoyed by a flippant/offensive remark or whatever.
One final tip relates to creating a permit compliance table. Strictly speaking, this may not be a permit requirement as such and there are other ways to ensure and demonstrate compliance, but it is simple to construct and should prove to be invaluable. Yes, it does take time to develop initially, but this should be more than compensated for by the non-compliances – and resultant penalties – saved during future inspections.
Very briefly, a compliance table lists all of the conditions that are in the permit and indicates where each one is being met in the site’s EMS. The table acts as a route map of compliance, rather than demonstrating the actual means of compliance (for example, the table should not include copies of certificates or maintenance records, but instead it should show where these items can be found in the EMS). Here’s a simplified example:
|1.2.3 – Training||Section 2|
|4.5.6 – Maintenance records||Section 4, Accident Management Plan – Section 6.2, Disaster Recovery Plan – Section 1.1|
|7.8.9 – Internal checks||Procedure A1.1|
Consequently, if permit condition 1.2.3 was being assessed, the table would quickly direct the operator and inspector towards Section 2 (and then onwards to any procedures, policies, certificates, etc. that are referred to in this section). Hopefully this shows how a table of this sort can be useful in terms of providing resilience in the event of staff turnover (i.e. rather than relying on an individual’s knowledge of the EMS, the necessary information is clearly documented) and also easing the pain of an EA inspection. It doesn’t fill an inspector with confidence when they ask an operator how a permit condition is being complied with, only to be met with a blank face.
The aspects mentioned above will obviously only get an operator so far in an EA inspection; after all, there are the nitty gritty details of assessing compliance with emission limits, monitoring, storage of hazardous materials, etc. However, the fundamental points above should provide a sound platform for a pain-free inspection and help to ensure that time and goodwill isn’t being wasted on getting the basics right.
On a slightly parallel theme, it is widely known that an EMS which is certified to ISO 14001 standard will potentially derive a financial benefit under the EA’s charging scheme, as well as making an EA inspection marginally easier. If you want assistance with developing and checking (editing/proofreading) your EMS prior to submitting it to the certification body, please contact me to see how I can help. Similarly, I’m always happy to help with any other written material, such as permit applications, web content, articles, annual reports, and sales and marketing material.