How “Familiarity Blindness” Can Hide the Biggest Environmental Liabilities

Have you ever looked at the bottom of an elevator shaft? Probably not. Nobody ever does.

Most of the time they’re full of muck and guck – the hydraulic systems that power some elevators often leak. And a lot of times there is groundwater in the bottom of the elevator shaft, which means there’s a pathway into the shaft. And if water is getting in, whatever is found in the bottom of the elevator shaft can make its way out of the shaft.. And that means soil and groundwater contamination could exist below the building.This is a perfect example of familiarity blindness. In basic terms, it means that people have a hard time recognizing problems or issues in situations or environments that they’re used to. You’re comfortable… so you let your guard down. Or there are features of your facility that have just always been there – you never think of it as a problem. Or, like in the case of the elevator shaft, they’re invisible from view – out of sight, out of mind.

This phenomenon can be especially dangerous and costly in manufacturing plants and other facilities because it can lead to environmental liabilities that require costly remediation.

The Psychology Behind Familiarity Blindness

Turns out our brains have limits. It’s impossible for us to see, notice, and remember everything we come across in a typical day. Much of it gets discarded.

Harvard researchers have studied this issue closely. They conducted an experiment in which they showed participants a short video featuring three people in white shirts and three in black shirts passing basketballs to each other. The viewers were supposed to keep count of the number of times a white shirted person passed a ball. In the middle of the video a man in a gorilla suit walks into frame, thumps his chest and then walks off. The gorilla was on screen for nine seconds.

It seems obvious that everybody watching the video would notice the gorilla. But here’s where it gets interesting – half of them didn’t! They were too busy counting. Their brain was focused on that task and excluded very important information.

The Harvard researchers call these sorts of unnoticed issues invisible gorillas. And it’s a term we’ve adapted in our work at Envision Environmental, Inc.  When we get to a job site, we often see many environmental, health and safety issues that have gone unnoticed.

It’s not that the facility manager is failing at their job. It happens in the best-run companies where the staff has a commitment to compliance. It’s just our brains working against us.

With familiarity blindness, it’s also often the case that you are very busy. You are handling many responsibilities, and you’re working hard to meet deadlines and benchmarks. So, you focus on those immediate tasks rather that what’s going on around you. Like a horse with blinders on.

Common Invisible Gorillas – Do You Have These at Your Facility?

Take floor/wall scuppers. We see these a lot in older buildings. They’re holes through the exterior wall of a building just above the floor and were designed to let liquids drain out if the sprinkler system turns on. Before the invention of dry sprinkler systems, which is standard these days, scuppers were required by the fire department. They didn’t want firefighters exposed to contaminated water.

Most people who have them in their facility don’t know their purpose. Or that it provides a direct pathway out of the building for chemicals or solvents that may be released inside the building. It’s just another invisible gorilla – something that’s always been there and gets overlooked.

A major cause of invisible gorillas is when new equipment is set up.

You have to get a new manufacturing line operational in a month. The pressure is on to get the equipment set up and ready to go. So the old equipment you’re replacing is left in place or pushed to the side, without being properly decommissioned.

Time passes – months, years, decades. That old equipment just becomes part of the scenery. Soon nobody knows what it was used for. The issue is that without being properly decommissioned it could be leaking contaminants. Or when somebody finally decides to move it – they don’t know how to do so safely.

There was one case – an investigation we did at a metal forming facility – where we found a concrete bunker-type structure filled with mysterious sludge and hardened material. The area surrounding the structure was contaminated with oils and solvents that apparently leaked out of the structure. We talked to facility personnel – they had no idea what the structure was or what it had been used for. 

According to the facility, “It has always been here.” But they said one of their co-workers, who had retired five years previously, might know. So we took him to lunch and brought him over to take look at it. Turns out the structure was formerly used for process wastewater treatment, was last used in the early 1980s, and was never properly decommissioned. 

Because of the soil contamination surrounding this structure, we had to clean it out and remove it from the ground so the contamination could be remediated.  If the structure had been properly decommissioned 25 years ago, it wouldn’t have cost the facility $250,000 in soil remediation today.

In another case, we went into one facility that had a high-tech self-contained chemical mix room with a system of sumps and trenches to take care of any spill.

But we discovered one heck of an invisible environmental gorilla. There was a manhole right in the middle of the room, giving maintenance staff access to the storm water system of the facility, which discharges into a stream. So any spills in that mix room that were missed by the sumps and trenches could possibly enter the manhole cover, into the storm water system, and then into the stream.

It was obvious to us that this was a problem. But to the facility team, that manhole was a way to get into the storm water system for maintenance. They didn’t realize the risk with it being located in the mix room.

Recognizing Your Invisible Environmental Gorillas

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make – that gets them into expensive trouble with environmental liability – is the belief that following the “rules” will keep you completely safe. 

Staying in compliance with environmental laws and regulations is a great first step. But again, familiarity blindness creeps in. You go through the motions of recordkeeping, training, and monitoring. But you stop actively looking for risks, figuring that any problems would come up with your routine compliance checks.

But here’s the thing: some of the biggest problems are caused by unseen or invisible risks… the unexpected.

As a facility manager, you have to recognize that compliance is not enough. I would encourage you to do a thorough review of your processes. You may not have had an issue yet, but are your facility’s standard environmental programs and practices outdated?

For example, we went to one facility where the manager was following what he thought was proper procedure – but it actually resulted in a six-figure clean up.

This facility generated a constant stream of scrap steel, covered in oil, that they put in uncovered roll-off dumpsters that were staged outside the facility. These were periodically picked up to be recycled. But the dumpsters were staged right next to a building with roof rainwater downspouts.

Since the dumpsters were uncovered, every time it rained, the oil on the scrap steel would wash off and accumulate on the ground below the dumpsters.  Since the dumpsters were staged next to the downspouts from the roof, the rainwater exiting the downspouts would pick up the oil below the dumpsters and wash it into nearby catch basins. 

These catch basins  discharged into a big storm water retention pond that was located on an adjacent property that was not owned by this facility. And that’s right where all that oil went.

There was oil in the sediment around the periphery of the pond and the water surface had a sheen of oil on it. It was noticed, of course. And the trail followed back to this facility.  We were retained to address this issue, which resulted in a low six-figure remediation project.

Getting an Outside Perspective

A key part of finding invisible environmental gorillas is getting fresh eyes on the situation. 

That’s where an experienced environmental consultant comes in. We’re not “cursed” with the familiarity blindness you have regarding your own facility. And we can spot causes of contamination and potentially dangerous and expensive environmental liability where you would miss it.

When we assess a facility, we look for the out of the ordinary and common overlooked areas. And that’s where we find the invisible gorillas.

I've 'written the book' on finding the most common environmental gorillas. You can request a free copy of the book here.


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