The 4 Keys to Total Facility Knowledge


A few years ago, my team and I were conducting environmental due diligence on a property for a potential buyer. We saw cause to do sampling around the building; half of which was used for manufacturing, the other half, a warehouse.The results showed contamination in the warehouse side but nothing in the manufacturing area. It’s usually the other way around.

I double-checked with the sampling crew to make sure there was no mix-up and asked the facility manager if there had been a spill in the warehouse area. Those inquiries came back negative on both counts.

Then, the manager showed me an old drawing of the site that they hadn’t really looked at before, and had only recently found after we completed our sampling work.

I could see that years ago, the building was smaller and used only for manufacturing – that’s more than likely when a release had occurred. As the business grew, they added on to the building to create a new manufacturing area and the former manufacturing area became the warehouse.

If only the facility manager had discovered that drawing previously and knew to tell us about it, because it would have saved a lot of time and money as we investigated why we were getting those mysterious contamination results.

Unfortunately, we run across this issue all the time.

It highlights the importance of facility knowledge for every facility manager.

Basically, you need to understand your operations.

You must know your raw materials, finished products, and waste products, as well as equipment, applicable regulations and permits, buildings and other site infrastructure, and the property history.

As environmental consultants, we come across many people who lack this facility knowledge. And when we get on site, we spend a lot of time figuring all that out.

The importance of facility knowledge doesn’t apply only to manufacturers. If you manage a hospital, office complex, school, or even a restaurant, you must understand your facility inside and out. An office complex, for example, might have a boiler or generator big enough to require an air permit. In addition, every property has a history, and that history may cause issues in the future no matter what your facility does.

Fortunately, gaining and maintaining an intimate understanding of your facility is easy.

How to Gain Facility Knowledge

There are three words that too many facility managers are afraid to say. These words stop them from gaining the knowledge they need to excel in their jobs and save their employer lost time and money from environmental, health and safety issues.

Those three simple words are…

“I don’t know.”

It’s understandable. As a facility manager, you might feel like you’re already supposed to know everything, so you don’t want to show weakness.

But if you want to make radical – and necessary – improvements to the environmental, health and safety situation at your facility, you have to change this attitude and be able to say those three magical words.

1. Know Your Property History

This is where it starts. As a facility manager, what happened before your first day of work is still your responsibility.

Knowing the history of the site can be invaluable in planning and saving time and money on, not only environmental, health and safety issues, but all facility projects. We had one client all set for a major building expansion but when the contractors arrived on site to break ground, they hit underground storage tanks nobody knew were there. These tanks had to be addressed before the building expansion could continue. Unfortunately, soil contamination was discovered during the tank removals, which had to be remediated and resulted in the building expansion project being delayed by over a year. Imagine the unnecessary costs that resulted from this issue! If the facility had a handle on its property history, more than likely, these tanks could have been addressed before the building contractor set foot on the property for the building expansion.

So how do you find hidden storage tanks nobody knows about?

Look for old drawings or aerial photos of your site. Review records in your office and those that regulators have maintained. Once you start amassing this knowledge, keep it all in one place and add to it as needed.

One of your most valuable resources for property history are long-time employees because they know what lurks in the dark corners at your facility. Tap into that resource to help you understand your property history.

2. What Do You Do and How Do You Do It?

Do you know your facility inside and out? I’m not talking about how to run every piece of equipment, but you have to know what you do and how you do it. Make sure you have a general understanding of what processes are involved and what the equipment is used for. You should know where and how your materials are stored and what you already have in terms of permits, policies, programs, certifications, etc.

One blind spot we often see are facility drains.

In one case, we were investigating a facility that had a flammable storage area. There were drums everywhere, from which workers would fill up 5-gallon buckets to use in the facility.

On occasion, some material would be spilled while filling these buckets and the spilled material would go into a floor drain. We asked the facility manager where the drain went. He said, “The sewer… I assume.” Remember the old saying, “Never assume anything”?

They did have some old drawings of the facility we were able to review, and the floor drains actually led to an on-site pond. Even though this information was at hand, nobody realized that this was occurring. This simple oversight resulted in significant contamination over many years and an expensive cleanup of the pond.

Historical records are extremely important, especially old figures and aerial photos. Never get rid of such records, and make sure you review these records.

3. Be a Good Communicator

As the facility manager, you want to become the guy or gal that’s viewed as the go-to person – not the pain in the butt.

It all comes down to establishing trust with your team.

Being an effective communicator is about involving production floor personnel, as well as department and line supervisors in establishing critical facility programs and procedures.

Approach those people with something like this: “One of my key jobs is running this facility at an optimum level. That includes the health and safety of employees and staying in compliance. I’d like you to be involved in this process. Help me understand what you do and how you do it so that we can all ensure that our facility runs in a safe and efficient manner. Could you explain it to me?”

The key to success here: ensure that employees feel ownership in order to get their commitment to the program.

4. Permitting and Regulations

When it comes to the regulations you have to follow and which permits are required at your facility, it’s like a lot of things in life; ignorance is not an excuse and it is the leading cause of noncompliance and regulatory fines.

Not knowing what permits you need – or what you already have – can also cost you money in other ways.

We worked with one manager who wanted us to review their facility to determine if they needed a water permit. We concluded that they did and we helped them prepare the application.

The manager went to get a check from the purchasing department to pay for it, who then dropped a bombshell: they already had the permit.

Even though the facility manager was responsible for environmental, health and safety issues, he never knew the facility already had the permit because he was relatively new on the job. The permit had been filed with the purchasing manager because he was in charge of sending in the annual renewal fee. So the key here is to make sure you involve key decision makers at your facility when it comes to regulations and permitting before deciding what regulations apply to your facility and what permits you need – you may already have what you think is needed.

Refining Your Facility Knowledge

As a facility manager, you’re wearing a lot of hats but facility knowledge is something you can never neglect.

It all comes back to working with your team and keeping the lines of communication open, as well as coming to know what was done at the site years go. The goal: not repeating the mistakes of the past. Repeating a past mistake is not only costly from a monetary standpoint, but it is also extremely damaging to your reputation.

One of the best ways to do that is to keep a detailed “historical” record of your facility, including the location of equipment and infrastructure, past permits, and more.

You can download this free checklist to help you start gathering your data now.

Property History Checklist

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