Throughout my career, I’ve seen some really bad things happen to clients, competitors and as already mentioned, my own companies, as a direct result of failing to manage EHS compliance.
Some of the stories have to do with environmental issues, and others resulted from safety issues, but they all have one thing in common: each of these companies, and the people involved, were blind-sided by the events and prior, never would have believed that it would happen to them.
They were all good companies and good people who simply failed to keep up with the regulations, and one day it caught up with them.
Here’s a summary of some of the worst events and situations I’ve witnessed or been involved with:
Think of these as cautionary tales that you can us to help prevent similar disasters from happening at your company. To learn more, keep reading below.
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The first story occurred prior to starting my first business while I was working for a large company that provided hazardous waste management services.
The impacted company shared a building with one of our customers and got into serious trouble with EPA and TCEQ when it was discovered that their hazardous waste transporter (a small competitor of ours) was illegally managing their waste.
I had been trying to get their business for a while, and during that process had actually warned the company about potential trouble after I saw their waste transporter loading waste drums into a small, open trailer attached to a pickup truck! This was a major red flag as far as I was concerned, and I turned out to be right.
Not too long after that warning, I received a call from the company’s operations manager telling me that they had been informed that the transporter was illegally storing their hazardous solid waste in a nearby self-storage unit, and apparently dumping their hazardous liquids into a local creek.
In other words, rather than transporting their waste to an approved and permitted hazardous waste treatment facility for disposal, they were simply putting it into this self storage unit and dumping the rest, all the while charging the company for disposal.
I was relatively new to the industry at that time, and had never heard of such a thing, but even I knew that this was a really, really bad situation.
The operations manager asked for a quote to transport the waste drums from the storage unit back to their facility. I quickly explained to them that this would also be illegal, and that they had no choice but to contact the TCEQ and EPA to tell then what was going on, or face potential criminal liability.
Luckily they followed my advice and contacted the authorities.
We were later hired to transport the waste from the self storage unit to an approved disposal facility in the Houston area.
I’ll never forget the day we arrived to haul the waste. It was a brutally hot and humid Texas August afternoon, and when I arrived at the storage facility to meet our truck, I saw probably 40 authorities standing around. Some were TCEQ, others EPA, a few from Texas Parks & Wildlife, there were actually a few FBI and the others were local police.
Soon after, one of the owners of the accused waste transportation company arrived. She was alone (the other owner was apparently her boyfriend), and one of the authorities directed her to open the locked storage unit, and when she did, it revealed a “wall” of waste drums stacked from floor to ceiling. The entire unit was totally packed with literally no room to enter. There were around 80, 55 gal drums inside.
I’ll also never forget how nobody offered to help her remove them. Since the waste was lead contaminated debris and the drums were plastic, each drum only weighed around 30-40 pounds.
She was directed to move each one to the back of our truck, at which point the authorities removed the lids, took photos, and then allowed our driver to load them.
The whole process took several hours. It was brutal.
The lady and her boyfriend were later convicted of various environmental violations and sent to prison.
To make the story even stranger, it turned out that the boyfriend/owner was the son of an older guy who I knew from a club I belonged to.
The company who hired us also got into serious trouble because EPA laws dictate that generators of hazardous waste have “cradle to grave” responsibility for the waste that they generate, meaning that they were held accountable for failing to vet the transporter and ensuring that their waste was properly managed.
This was my first experience dealing with major EHS compliance liabilities, but it definitely wasn’t the last.
A few years later, one of the first clients of my, at the time, new hazardous waste management business, actually the business owner, ended up being charged and convicted of multiple EPA & TCEQ, RCRA hazardous waste management violations.
The final penalties including a major fine as well as jail time.
Unfortunately I ended up getting involved with the prosecution case after the customer’s landlord contacted the EPA and TCEQ prosecutors to let them know that I had knowledge of the violations.
To be clear, I wasn’t the “whistle blower,” nor was I against assisting the prosecutors, but it was a very awkward situation given that I knew the customer and had warned him about the violations on several occasions prior to him getting caught. Not to mention the fact that the authorities didn’t exactly “ask” for my help, they demanded it.
I ended up spending two full days at the District Attorney’s Office downtown along with prosecutors from the 3 involved agencies: EPA, TCEQ and Texas Parks & Wildlife, who deposed me and coached me through the process.
On a side note, these agency prosecutors were as sharp, quick and determined as any professionals I’ve ever met, and believe me when I say that you don’t want to find yourself in their cross hairs.
The next day I arrived at court to face my former customer, and his family, and tell the court what I knew. It was not a good day.
A few years later, another client of my hazardous waste management business was literally raided by EPA, TCEQ and other authorities after a rogue employee willfully violated the company’s waste water discharge permit by illegally discharging untreated hazardous waste.
I’ll never forget getting the call from one of my contacts at the company that day, telling me that about 30 authorities literally stormed the building, told all of the employees to exit the building and then rounded up management into the conference room to tell them about the charges and potential criminal consequences.
During the investigation, which went on for months, management and ownership had to live with the possibility of criminal charges and jail time coming their way. One of them was a guy I used to take golfing on a regular basis. During that time period, this happy-go-lucky guy disappeared from our golf outings and eventually left the state after charges were finally dismissed.
I don’t know the final details of the investigation, but I do know the massive toll that it took on these good people who unintentionally fell victim to the crimes of a single, rogue employee.
In other words, management and ownership didn’t commit the actual crime nor did they intend for it to happen, but they were held accountable for all of it because the EPA laws say that it was their responsibility to ensure that it never happened to begin with.
A couple of years after I started my wind energy services company, we were working on a project in the Houston port inspecting wind turbine blades as they were unloaded from ships.
Apparently a worker from one of the other companies working on the project issued a complaint to OSHA, who responded by inspecting the project. While doing so, he noticed one of my employees entering the “root” of a blade.
The root is the large round end that connects to the hub (the 3 blades connected to the hub makes up the “rotor” of a wind turbine). Anyway, these blades are enormous and the root of the ones we were inspecting were approximately 6’ in diameter making it big enough for a person to walk into it.
What I didn’t know at the tine is that OSHA considers a blade a “Permit Required Confined Space.”
What I also didn’t know was that our employees were required to enter the blade root.
To make matters worse, the employee who was caught entering the blade by the OSHA inspector without meeting confined space requirements was actually our safety manager!
He didn’t bother to tell me about it. Instead I found out several weeks later when a letter from the US Department of Labor landed on my desk, with a letter notifying me about the violation along with a hefty fine.
Of all people, he should have known about the requirement, but either didn’t, or ignored it. I couldn’t ever get a straight answer out of him after the citation was issued.
Remember from my “Lessons Learned & Mistakes Made” page where I described how hiring a safety manager, and then assuming that everything is taken care of, was one of my mistakes?
Now you know why.
My entry into the wind energy business began when I decided to attend the industry’s annual trade conference in LA back in 2007.
At that point in time, the industry was booming and the excitement and opportunities seemed endless.
While having lunch at the conference, I met a guy who owned a small wind energy services company in West Texas. Since his company was exactly like what I wanted to start, I struck up a conversation and told him what I was hoping to do.
At that time, there was a major shortage (and need) of services companies like his, so was open to talking about it.
He told me about his company and how incredibly busy they were and how they couldn’t keep up with demand. His problem wasn’t finding work, it was finding enough technicians to service it.
I later learned that it all came to a quick end one day when one of his technicians made a really bad decision which resulted in a serious accident and injury….
Before getting into that, let me tell you more about the back-story.
At that point in time, GE was the largest wind turbine OEM in the industry and relied on contractors to perform virtually all of their operations and maintenance work.
If you were able to get a contract with GE, success was virtually assured if you could just manage to keep up. This guy was the owner of one of those few fortunate contracting companies who did business with GE.
But it wasn’t quite that simple. GE also put major emphasis on the importance of safety, and only wanted to work with contractors who shared in this value.
Wind turbines are typically 250 tall with all kinds of safety hazards including falls from extreme heights, large moving parts, confined spaces and high voltage electricity.
At the top of a wind turbine tower is the “nacelle,” which is a large rectangular box that houses the gearbox, generator, other equipment and provides the foundation for the rotor and 3 blades.
In order to access the nacelle, where most of the service work is needed, technicians must climb the ladders on the inside of the tower. It’s a long climb and requires strong fitness. It’s not easy, especially if a technician has to climb several per day. I know from personal experience.
In order to relieve the technicians from having to carry the heavy tools they use to the top of the tower, the nacelle has a hoist and chain system with a tool bag that can be lowered to the ground, where tools are loaded, and then hoisted back up.
Well one day while this guy’s company was working on a GE project, one of his technicians got the brilliant idea to attach his fall protection harness to the tool hoist chain so it could carry him to the top, rather than having to climb the ladder.
That turned out to be a really, really bad idea.
Apparently about 30-40 feet up, he panicked and released himself from the chain and fell to the ground a long way down below.
Luckily he didn’t die, but he was seriously injured, which lead to many more problems for both himself and the company.
That decision and injury later lead to a huge OSHA fine, and the end of the massive contract that the company had with GE.
If that weren’t bad enough, word spread quickly and before long nobody wanted to do business with them.
The owner of the company remembered me from the wind conference, and called to tell me he was liquidating the business and wanted to know if I was interested in buying his equipment and hiring some of his remaining employees. I ended up doing so for pennies on the dollar.
During the call he also told me about the accident.
He basically admitted that safety was never a priority at the company and understood that this lack of commitment to safety culture lead to the accident.
By the time he contacted me, he was shattered and had accepted responsibility for the accident and his company’s fait.
Think about that for a minute. This small business owner had a hugely profitable, multi million dollar service company but lost it in an instant, and it was all due to his own lack of understanding and commitment to the importance of safety.
Not long after I was fined by OSHA, I was reading one of the weekly industry update emails that highlighted how a direct competitor had been issued a $435,000 fine after one of their workers was nearly killed due to failing to follow Lockout/Tagout procedures.
OSHA issued several Willful LOTO violations and added the company to their “Severe Violator Enforcement Program” which is a nasty, long term program focused on enhanced scrutiny until a company can prove that they’ve corrected their safety problems and culture.
Not only did the company face these major fines and penalties, but they also suffered massive industry embarrassment since virtually everyone found out about it almost immediately.
They somehow survived the ordeal because they were a much larger company than mine, but the same thing would have destroyed my company.
What made it worse was the fact that I knew if it happened to them, it could just as easily happen to my company if we weren’t careful.
It was a harsh reminder that I was in a very dangerous industry and that the stakes were incredibly high. Not only that my employees could be killed, but that I would be held fully accountable if it happened.
These experiences later inspired me to conduct a 6 month research project to learn more about these risks and how they can end up destroying lives and companies. That research lead to the creation of a new report called: “The 5 Most Dangerous EHS Compliance Risks Facing Small Companies”
This report later provided me with the underlying business case to create a new consulting company which is dedicated to helping small companies to not only achieve and manage EHS compliance, but also reduce the risk of these preventable liabilities : Berg Compliance Solutions – EHS Compliance For Small Business