Guess Who’s Coming to Visit?

In the industrial ammonia refrigeration industry, we make a considerable effort to stay informed and up to date on programs that should be followed. The effort put into these programs varies depending on factors such as the specific system design and operation; the resources (people) available; the effort that can be done on programs due to other commitments; or if no one has a really good understanding of requirements. Whatever the situation, there likely will come a time of reckoning when some outside agency wants to review what is in place.

Recently I received a call from a company I was helping to develop and maintain their OSHA Process Safety Management (PSM) and EPA Risk Management Plan (RMP).

The conversation went something like this:

“I just got a letter that EPA is coming to visit in 10 days!”

“What’s the date they are coming,” I asked.

“August 15th, and I’m out of town on vacation that whole week,” he replied.

Couple of learning points here:

  1. EPA typically gives a two-week notice, but it sometimes may seem shorter as it did in this case. Part of the challenge is who does the notice go to? I have seen some notices ending up taking several days before they actually got to a person who understood what it meant.
  2. It doesn’t matter if you are on vacation or attending an important event somewhere. Someone must be on site to properly represent your program to the EPA. It is important that more than just person at your business has a good grasp of the entire program.

Our conversation continued with my reply, “When can we get together?”

I know several companies that have people dedicated specifically to oversee programs such as the PSM and RMP. These people and companies put in the continuing effort needed to keep all sections of these programs in “current” condition so they can be seen as “living,” not dust-collecting stacks of papers and books.

After I hung up, I wondered who else might be getting a visit? The answer came quickly when another customer called. Their inspection would be three days later. The gentleman calling felt very unprepared and wanted to meet ASAP.

EPA inspections for a Risk Management Program typically have three parts.

  1. After an introductory discussion on the inspection agenda, they ask to be taken on a tour of the refrigeration system of your facility, including the machine room(s) and several of the cold rooms or refrigeration processing areas. One of the people in the EPA group will likely be taking photos to document what was actually seen as they tour.
  2. They divide all of the sections of your program among however many inspectors there are. From my experience, there have always been three inspectors. First impressions of your program do make a difference. A lesson to learn is that your program presentation should be well organized, with each section easily identified, and that all the appropriate information can easily be found. It has worked best when most of the sections (or elements) are in their own binder, although some of the smaller sections might be combined into a single binder with easy-to-understand separation between the sections. I have seen facilities that have placed everything into a couple of large binders. These were very thick and hard to handle, and made it challenging to find information quickly.
  3. They hold a wrap-up meeting with the company. Depending on the inspectors and how and what they found, they may spend some time in a private conversation before informing you of their preliminary findings. In other cases, where the inspection has found relatively little, a private meeting might not be held and the wrap-up is fairly quick.

It is important to understand that what the EPA inspectors note when going through their checklists are preliminary findings, and their inspection reports are turned over to another EPA person or group to analyze and eventually make recommendations and/or issue a fine notice that will be sent to you at a later date —maybe in several weeks or much longer.

With the notice of an upcoming inspection, EPA typically sends along their “RMP Program Level 3 Process Checklist.” This document is presently 25 pages and covers 40 CFR Part 68 in good detail. This document can be helpful as companies compare the checklist to their current program, finding out where things seem to be in good shape or may be deficient.

Consider the following as you prepare for an EPA inspection:

  • The refrigeration system and facility in general should be fairly clean so it can be seen it is being well maintained. Again, first impressions do help.
  • The system and its components should be properly labeled (See ANSI/IIAR 2-2021, Appendix Q (Informative) Guidelines for the Identification of Ammonia Refrigeration Piping and System Components). Inspectors are typically familiar with industry standards and guidelines. How does your system compare to the standards and guidelines?
  • Drawings, Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams (P&IDs) should be accurate. I have been on inspections where the EPA inspector got information from the P&IDs then went to the field to verify it was the same. Also, taking information from the field and verifying it was the same on the P&IDs. Drawings should be field verified for accuracy before any inspectors see them.
  •  How are all of the PSM/RMP sections presented? As mentioned above, the best documentation presentations seem to be when each section of your program is distinctly separated. Usually, this means that each section is in its own binder. This makes it much easier for the inspectors and also for you when you are asked where something is. I have seen several inspections where most of the sections were combined into one or two large notebooks. These inspections were much more stressful. You may know your program very well, but under the stress of having multiple inspectors looking at you for answers you may find you have momentarily lost several grades of intelligence. Be very organized beforehand so you have to put less thought into where materials are located, whether in binders or electronic files.
  • Be truthful, helpful and forthcoming when asked questions. Answer questions without stating information beyond what is needed. Do not dig a hole you can fall into.
  • Be pleasant. I can’t think of an EPA inspector that hasn’t been pleasant to work with as they do the job they came to do. Don’t create the impression that you have more important things to do than sit here with the inspectors or spend time on the PSM/ RMP programs.

Regarding the two inspections I mentioned, one did much better than the other. The first inspection did not have documentation as well organized as it could have. There were some duplicate sections, and sometimes in multiple places. The feeling was, “Don’t throw anything away.” That may work sometimes, but for these programs and inspections you want the current version of each section. Older information should be archived, possibly electronically, and retrieved if needed to show a history of compliance.

You should be familiar with the retention time for sections of the RMP. In 40 CFR Part 68.200 Recordkeeping it states, “The owner or operator shall maintain records supporting the implementation of this part at the stationary source for five years, unless otherwise provided in subpart D of this part.”

There is information in some sections that should be kept for other periods of time. For example, you should retain the two most recent “Compliance Audits” along with documentation of tracking of resolutions to all recommendations; every “Process Hazard Analysis” (PHA) that has been done including documentation of tracking of resolutions to all recommendations for the life of the process. For other sections of the programs, when in doubt, keep the information for five years.

When someone of authority comes to inspect your PSM and RMP programs, the best way to be prepared is by constantly keeping these programs as current as possible. Keep relevant information as up to date as feasible. This will help you, your team and company have a much less stressful cortisol flowing experience when OSHA or EPA come to visit.