Investigators are people too!. . . and other things I learned working with PHMSA Field Ops

For 9 months of my career with USDOT / PHMSA, I was asked to oversee the Field Operations Team for the Office of Hazardous Materials Safety.  It was a great experienced that provided me with insight and a more complete understanding of the hazardous materials safety system, of which so many of us are a part.  During that time, Field Operations included all PHMSA investigators, regional managers, safety assistance teams, accident investigations, HQ support staff and the National Training & Qualification Program.  Overall there were approximately 80 employees and contractors that create the vanguard of ensuring compliance with the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR).  Here are a few things that I learned while in that position, which might help companies navigate the sometimes-intimidating thought of living through a hazardous materials inspection.

  1. Investigators are people too! I will admit that many of the investigators have an uncanny, almost robotic memory when it comes to the HMR, but I assure you, they are all human.  Many times, after leaving your facility, they may be heading off to their child’s soccer or basketball practice, just like you.  So, please treat them as you would like to be treated.
  2. Due Process is built into the system. An investigator may come into your facility and cite violations to the regulations that you don’t agree with, that’s ok.  In fact, you do not need to sign the exit briefing that they provide you at the end of the inspection, but even if you do, it’s not an admission of wrongdoing.  The inspection is the first step in the process, the exit briefing is then reviewed by the Chief Investigator of the region and Regional Director, but that’s not the end.  The Regional Director will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed with issuing a “Notice of Probable Violations” The briefing is then assigned to an attorney, at which point you will be contacted and a proposed fine will be provided.  The fine and the violations can be discussed with the attorney and adjudicated at that point, based upon several factors including your company’s ability to pay, corrective actions taken, etc.  Basically, you will have plenty of opportunities to discuss your side of the story, with both regional management and HQ attorney advisors.
  3. The Hazardous Materials Safety Assistance Team (HMSAT) members are incredible but underused resources! Each region has at least one HMSAT member that are experts in the HMR and provide support and outreach to companies and organizations.  These people want to help, so get to know your regional HMSAT member!
  4. Similar to every organization that I have ever been a part of, whether as a field geologist, a construction manager or a Federal employee, there are communication challenges between the field and HQ. I want to make this clear, I am not blaming either side for these challenges, it is an incredibly difficult feat to ensure that consistent messages are sent to each remote individual, with expediency.  It was always much easier to have HQ staff called into a conference room than coordinate all necessary investigators and field staff, which can lead to some inconsistencies and misunderstandings.  (See note 1!)  If you are hearing two different interpretations from field personnel and HQ, it is ok to bring that to their attention.  They will call each other and work through the inconsistency.
  5. Make sure you complete and document your required training. For as long as I can remember, the number one cited violation has been related to training deficiencies or training documentation deficiencies.  This is unfortunate.  Make sure your employees are trained, and make sure you are documenting it.  If you hire a training company, make sure they are tailoring the training to your organization.  Remember that training includes: General
    Awareness, Function Specific and often Security Awareness.  One recommendation that I often provide is, following the initial or recurring training, a supervisor should walk through an employee’s functions to illustrate how the training impacts their job and its relative importance to the hazardous materials safety system, then document that too!

My intent behind this post is to provide some perspective on my time, albeit short, with PHMSA’s Field Operations and some of the lessons that I learned while working with the smart and dedicated people on that team.  I am happy that I had that opportunity to be a part of their team and happy that I have built relationships that last to this day.  If you have any questions about PHMSA’s Field Operations or a recent inspection, please feel free to reach out to us at HSC.