The Importance of Communication for Facility and Plant Managers


As a facility/plant manager, you’re a jack of all trades – the ultimate multi-tasker – in charge of just about everything going on in your site: equipment, people, safety, and compliance with all applicable federal, state, and local regulations.One of the best ways to manage everything is to establish a good rapport with those people who can help you do your job easier and better, especially when it comes to environmental, health and safety issues. Who might those people be? Your facility’s management and employees, and any regulators that check on your facility.

What’s the basis of any good and fruitful relationship? We’re talking about communication.

It’s one of four core requirements that every facility/plant manager must know, along with property history, facility knowledge, and documentation.

As the facility/plant manager, you’re the bridge between the production floor and upper management. Management understands money, the “bottom line”; the issues that account for profits/losses and their overall effects on the company. Your employees are under pressure to meet and exceed production goals as a result.

You have to balance the two sides while maintaining a safe workplace that meets environmental regulatory standards.

Better communication can mean less downtime due to incidents at your facility, a safer workplace, a more productive (and profitable) production line, and fewer fines or other measures taken by regulators when you’re out of compliance.

How many meetings have you been in, discussing an upcoming capital improvement project for example, and there is a chorus of groans when environmental, health and safety comes up?

Many facilities have a negative culture associated with environmental, health and safety programs. People think they are bottlenecks that will slow down production. At such facilities, we often hear that these programs just make it more difficult to get their jobs done.

It’s important to change that negative culture, and the best way to do that is through better communication.

Creating an Effective Relationship with Employees

As the “boss,” you might find it hard to communicate with the production floor. Maybe they’re intimidated by you, or reluctant to speak up in front of their fellow employees.

One of the main reasons environmental, health and safety programs fail is that the programs don’t seek input from the folks doing the work. Often times, there’s not enough effective communication to show the importance of key safety protocols and how to follow them.

I’ve seen companies hire consultants who charge a lot of money for an off the shelf environmental, health and safety program they tweak a bit to fit the facility, but it falls flat. 

A good program identifies all the job functions in a facility and the associated risks.

Who would be the best person to ask to define job functions and how to do jobs safely? A consultant, or the people actually doing the jobs?

Not only do you get a more comprehensive program, but you also get better buy-in if your employees are part of the process.

An important point here: get this buy-in from the “alphas” among your employees first – the respected long-time supervisors – and everybody else will follow suit.

Short and to the Point is Best

Another important element of communication is how you spread the word about existing environmental, health and safety policies.

The key here is short and sweet.

Visual aids like posters are a great start. When you pass on this information in writing (perhaps with an email or handout), don't give them War and Peace. Be brief, impart the key information, and that’s it – more people will read the communication and more people will retain the information.

This goes for in-person communications, too. Don’t talk down to your employees - be respectful. I knew one now-retired facility manager who knew his stuff but came across as a lecturing college professor. When employees saw him coming, they made a beeline elsewhere.

There’s No Such Thing as a Whistleblower

What you want to avoid is the perception that anybody who speaks up is a “whistleblower” bringing down your “wrath” on the whole department.

It’s all about how you react. Let’s say your employees are routinely ignoring an important safety protocol because it adds too much extra time to a process and they can’t meet their production goals.

Here’s how you handle it as a good communicator: You stress that ignoring safety can be dangerous, but then acknowledge that you understand why they’re doing it.

The next step is the most important: discuss the issue with the employees and have them help in coming up with a more efficient way that still satisfies the safety requirements, yet helps in getting the job done. They’re hands-on – they’ll no doubt have a suggestion that works if you let them contribute.

When you don’t have a good line of communication with your employees, you also lose on opportunities to make things more efficient, productive, and profitable.

Making Friends with Regulators

Are you afraid of regulators? It’s not unusual. If you’ve dealt with them in the past, it may not have been a good situation, so you try to avoid them. You’re afraid they’ll start asking tough questions, but being standoffish may actually cause more problems.

I had a call from a client not long ago and he was worried because somebody from the water quality office had left a message. He asked me if he should call him back. Yes!

Most of the time, it’s a new regulator introducing him or herself or advising that a new regulation is coming online. And if it’s not, actually speaking with somebody one-on-one can make for a much quicker resolution.

Another client of ours received a 45-page site assessment deficiency letter for investigation activities conducted by another consultant; that’s the longest I’ve ever seen. For many companies and environmental consultants, the next course of action would be to vigorously contest the findings and go through a series of written communications with regulators that go nowhere, while fines and penalties continue to accrue.

When we were retained to help address this deficiency letter, we just picked up the phone and called the regulators, introduced ourselves and explained we were on the case. We also requested an onsite meeting so that we could meet face-to-face and discuss what our approach was going to be to address the issues. As a result of these efforts, all parties involved fully understood the issues at hand, negotiated a favorable timeframe to address the issues, and returned our client to full compliance without going to enforcement, which saved the client time and a substantial amount of money.

Of course, if you’ve never worked with the regulators before, you can’t just pick up the phone and make that happen.

That’s why you have to make the “first move” now. Pick up the phone. Send an email. Introduce yourself to the regulators in your area. Have a conversation. Get to know each other a bit. That goes a long way if there are ever issues down the road at your facility.

Proactive Not Reactive

If there’s an issue, or you think there might be an issue, be proactive, not reactive. Don’t wait for regulators to call you. By that point, there’s not much chance of solving the problem the easy way.

If you’re permitting a project and you come across an issue and want to get feedback, just call your regulator. You could get your answer informally or request that it be a formal response.

Your Next Steps

The bottom line is that it’s your job to open the lines of communication, and keep them open, with regulators and employees.

Don’t put this off. Get out on the production floor ASAP and start fostering the sense that employees can come to you with potential issues without repercussions.

Let the production floor know their participation adds value and makes their workplace safer and more efficient.

Finally, don’t be afraid of regulators. Lay the foundation for a good working relationship now and you’ll find that future interactions are much more smooth.

Effective communication is a key part of any facility/plant manager’s job. Additionally, there are three other core competencies to keep in mind as well: property history, facility knowledge, and documentation.

You can download our free Four Core Requirements Checklist to get more details. It’s a great tool to have on your desk so you can refer to it easily.

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