May 18, 2020
Companies are going back to work after shuttering operations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. As they prepare to do so, they are developing Return-to-Work Plans that address how to keep workers, customers and visitors safe and minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19. As companies prepare to reopen, they should make certain not to forget consideration of any relevant environmental issues as well.
Address Any Outstanding Issues
Make certain you have documented any areas where you have been unable to meet deadlines in regulations, permits or registrations. Check any relevant enforcement discretion policies, federal, state or local, to confirm that you have documented everything you need to address. If you have missed any deadlines, make certain you know how long you have to address those items after returning to work. Deadlines may be triggered once the state or local government lifts a particular state of emergency declaration or shutdown order. Check for any items that have time sensitivities. For example, if you have had hazardous waste accumulating on-site, check to make certain that you do not have storage deadlines looming.
Remind Your Staff of Requirements
Require employees to review environmental provisions to remind them of what is required for proper operations. Pull out permits or registrations, review them carefully, refresh your staff on the details of what is required. Make certain that staff is prepared to address those requirements. If employees return on a limited basis, you should carefully review coverage for all required tasks. Make sure overall start-up-plans have been reviewed by environmental health and safety staff. For example, make certain that any chemicals that will be used in sanitizing the facility have been evaluated and the facility knows how these chemicals will be properly managed, including disposition. Special handling procedures, training, containment and labeling requirements could be triggered for use of certain chemicals and/or protective wear (e.g., respirators), depending on the circumstances.
Facilities should review startup plans and projections. Make certain adequate capacity exists to address production needs. For example, confirm wastewater streams are projected for treatment (both for routine steams and the potential for non-routine slugs) and that the capacity is available to handle them – whether on site or with the local publicly-owned wastewater treatment plan. Review equipment that has been shut down -- pumps, storage systems, etc. -- to confirm they are ready for operation. Confirm that pollution control equipment and monitoring devices are checked for proper conditions prior to restarting them. Document pre-start inspections and that proper maintenance has been conducted for the equipment. Ensure that all chemicals, necessary parts or equipment are present to restart operation of environmental systems and that, for items that have to be regularly replaced or replenished, the company has evaluated the supply chain and has a sufficient surplus to restart.
Plan Ahead for Potential Setbacks
As workers return, recognize that it is possible there could be new cases of COVID-19, and there could be a need for immediate response, and that this could again result in shutdowns – at your own facility or at suppliers. Companies should plan ahead. Look at staffing plans and make certain that employees can cover for one another. Cross-training on environmental requirements may be necessary to provide uninterrupted coverage. Most enforcement discretion polices are contingent on COVID-19 being the sole cause of the problem. Where a problem or deficiency may not have been foreseeable or preventable during the first round of COVID-19 shutdowns, the standard for what occurrences were unavoidable is likely to be higher the second-go-round. Companies need to expect this and attempt to plan for it. If a company could not secure some critical service or resource required to meet environmental requirements during the first wave of COVID-19 closures, they need to determine if there are reasonable ways to address such needs during a possible second-wave of shutdowns.
Evaluate Third-Party Interactions
Also consider interactions with third-parties. If the facility frequently uses third-party consultants such as testing companies, laboratories, etc., check with these facilities to determine their availability and to evaluate how they have planned to provide necessary services in light of the continued threats presented by COVID-19. Companies should consider how they will interact with those that visit the site. What protections will be required for visitors? For example, if a federal or state inspector shows up, will protective gear be required for them to enter the facility, if so, who is going to supply that gear, will access be refused the inspector does not provide protective equipment? These types of concerns may need to be reviewed with federal and/or state officials in advance of them showing up for a surprise inspection.
In conclusion, there are a multitude of considerations for companies restarting operations in light of the continued risks presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. As companies work to develop their return-to-work plans, they will want to remember to account for potential environmental concerns.
These materials have been prepared for informational purposes only and are not legal advice. This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. Internet subscribers and online readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.