Rather than being reactive when a crisis occurs or a regulatory issue arises, a program is outfitting retailers to be proactive.
Three years ago, the Agricultural Retailers Association and The Fertilizer Institute formed ResponsibleAg, an independent auditing organization with the mission of assisting ag retailers in complying with federal environmental, health, safety and security rules regarding the safe handling and storage of fertilizer products. To date, the program has 2,600 registered facilities; 1,880 have completed their ResponsibleAg audit, and 876 are certified.
One of those sites is Brandt Consolidated in Gridley, Ill., which sells anhydrous ammonia, 28% UAN, pesticides and seed.
“We were the first facility for Brandt that became ResponsibleAg certified,” explains Bill Roth, plant manager. “We knew the standards and measures we had to meet, and for us, the biggest project was getting our ammonia facility up to par.”
He explains the facility added all-new remote shutoffs to the loading area and concrete bollards around the ammonia and gas tanks.
Besides those site improvements, the team needed to address some exit signage and lighting.
“We started the process in the summer and met all the approvals by fall, so the whole process was only four months,” Roth says. “Getting up to all of the standards is something we needed to do, and it was all well worth the investment.”
About The Process. “If someone says we don’t need this program, I explain that after doing almost 2,000 audits, we’ve found 65,000 potential noncompliance issues,” says Bill Qualls, executive director of ResponsibleAg. “And the great news is of those issues, more than 40,000 have been corrected.”
Qualls explains regulations that apply across all aspects of ag retail are complex. “With the experiences we’ve had in the past three years, to think any facility is perfect already would be an outlier,” he says.
The first step is enrolling as a member of ResponsibleAg. Then, a facility schedules an audit, which is conducted by a trained ResponsibleAg auditor that the facility can chose. The facility is given time to remedy any issues noted during the initial audit, and then, a certification audit is scheduled. If all issues are addressed, then the site is ResponsibleAg certified.
All That Applies. A ResponsibleAg audit includes assessing a facility’s adherence to current regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Homeland Security.
The leadership team at Brandt Consolidated has registered all of its 19 facilities in ResponsibleAg and made a commitment for all of those facilities to be certified by 2020.
“From our perspective, we want to be good stewards in the communities we serve,” says Tim McArdle, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Brandt. “We operate businesses that present small risks when not handled properly. We want to send a strong message to our communities and our regulators that we have indeed lived up to our responsibilities. We want to demonstrate that we are responsible, we are compliant, and we even go beyond compliance.”
In the first half of November, two more Brandt facilities completed their audits for certification. And McArdle says the strides the company is making toward its goal are important as 2018 is the 65th anniversary for the independent retailer.
“I have a saying, ‘It’s never a problem until it’s a problem,’ and that means you can go around not being compliant day-to-day, but then the day comes that it isn’t OK. And it catches up to you in a hurry,” McArdle says. “We want to make sure people realize there continues to be a need to be committed to run compliant businesses.”
All retailers have access to the documents used during the audit, so they can prepare and know there will not be any surprises.
“It’s like having the answers to the test,” Qualls says. “The checklist includes all 400-plus points that the auditor is going to look at.”
Having all of the details in each step of the process helped reassure the team at The Andersons facility in North Manchester, Ind.
“We had the checklist, so we knew what to expect” explains Casey Hudson, who has sales and safety responsibilities at the North Manchester facility. “And if we added up the entire process, it took about 40 hours of our team’s time.”
The North Manchester team completed the certification process in a year. Hudson says the audit demonstrates that the business has nothing to hide, and being in ResponsibleAg shows strides in trying to keep any unnecessary incidents from happening.
Regulations Met. “Once a retailer goes through the entire pre-audit and audit program, they are grateful. They have addressed certain issues that needed to be corrected to make themselves compliant and have a safer work environment, and they are grateful because they didn’t see those issues before,” Qualls says.
Hudson says three of the team members at the North Manchester facility are volunteer firefighters, so they have an even greater awareness of rescue plans. But during the audit, the areas on their site considered confined spaces did demand an extra step for compliance.
“With our pit scales and 28% tanks, which are considered confined spaces, we had to provide documentation from the fire department that we had a rescue plan in place,” he explains.
According to Qualls roughly 99% of the notes from the initial audits are administrative or paperwork-related.
“The common sentiment after an audit is ‘we didn’t realize we needed to do that, and we are glad we caught it now,’” Qualls says.
Workplace Safety. “The regulations that have been written are intended to make the workplace safe. So if you say that is the minimum, we have to have those baseline requirements so our work environment is safe. Then, you can ask if that’s enough,” Qualls says.
When Qualls encounters people in the industry who think now isn’t the best time to go through this process, he cautions them to think again.
“There’s a feeling that with the new [Trump] administration, regulations are being rolled back and will go away,” he says. “But that hasn’t happened yet. And it’s not likely to.”
Another obstacle Qualls encounters is the objection of going through the audit because of the assumed cost to get into compliance. He flips this objection inside out and says that meeting regulations checks the box so retailers can move on and focus on profit-making endeavors.
“After you’re certified, from a regulatory standpoint, you know what your status is,” Qualls says. “And once you have this as a good baseline, you can move on to other projects in your business. It also gives peace of mind. And it’s one area you don’t have to worry about. You just have to maintain.”
Peace of mind is a top benefit reported by Russell Lassiter, general manager at Andalusia Farmers Co-op, part of Alabama Farmers Cooperative Inc.
“This helps keep us to a higher standard, so we aren’t just out here with a pile of liabilities,” Lassiter says.
At Lassiter’s location, the team had to address a safety harness and ladder, which totaled about $4,000. The other items to address were signage and administrative.
“The process makes you rethink, ‘Ah, we’ll get that later,’” he says. “And now we are certified, we have to keep it up because we have another audit coming in 2019.”
Brandt’s McArdle reports audits that have revealed a financial cost to remedy have often related to anhydrous ammonia, and though the site met state standards, it needed attention to meet a federal standard.
In 2009, the Brandt facility in Williamsville, Ill., experienced a natural disaster when a tornado leveled the buildings. Since then, the facility was rebuilt and became ResponsibleAg certified in 2016.
“This was a pretty painless process,” says Chris Becker, plant manager in Williamsville, Ill.
After the audit, Becker and his team addressed some signage; added automatic shutoffs and magnets in the ammonia facility; and purchased a new off-road fuel tank, which was the only large expense.
He says one benefit of having gone through the process is the statement it makes in how his team cares about what it does and how it does it.
“We are just on the edge of a small community, and they see a lot of big equipment coming in and out of our facility, and for some, that can be intimidating. Being part of ResponsibleAg is a way to demonstrate that there is a checklist we follow, and there are standards we operate by. It’s a proactive move to show we are operating at a higher standard,” Becker says.
Continuous Improvement. “ResponsibleAg made all of us aware of how we can raise our level of safety awareness and protocols,” Becker says.
Once ResponsibleAg certified, the accomplishment demonstrates a drive for continuous improvement. For Roth and the team in Gridley, that has been realized the greatest with their inventory management.
“Now, we’re much more on track with our inventory management—with what we are storing and what’s coming in and out—so we know what’s here at all times,” he says.
The team was already doing a once-a-year safety test day and would have the local volunteer firefighters come and assess the plant.
Roth says, “Now, we can really make sure we cross our t’s and dot our i’s. We were already hosting the volunteer fire department every few years to come to our plant and go through every situation—a chemical leak, fertilizer spill. Those guys are our friends and neighbors, and our kids go to the same school. We want them to be safe also.”
Community Relations. Becoming fully compliant with regulations makes an impression within the retailer’s team as well as the surrounding community.
“The better job we do communicating what we do and what we do well, the better it is for our stakeholders. We just as much as anyone want our workplace and community to be safe,” Qualls says.
The Future. “Compliance is what we have to do, but surely, we can go above and beyond. Right now, we are all about compliance. In the future, we’ll get to best practices and how to share those,” Qualls says.
ResponsibleAg has brought its members fully into compliance, and it has given retailers confidence about how they do business.
“This is a good thing to do for our business and for our community,” Roth says. “It makes our facilities safe and our employees safe. And anything that accomplishes those two things is something we should do.”