Many managers of plastics operations are asking themselves: ``How will people who live near my plant react when they learn the potential risk we pose to them?'' The key word in that question is when as opposed to if.
When is June 21. The Risk Management Program provision of the 1990 Clean Air Act mandates that by that date certain facilities must make public their Risk Management Programs, including their worst-case release scenarios.
That's ``worst-case'' as in ``What happens if all the hazardous materials I have are accidentally released with no containment or mitigation into a community of living plants, animals and human beings?''
Plastics operations that fall within this group can expect increased public scrutiny. The best way to meet these challenges is through open, honest and frequent communications.
The disclosure will be unprecedented in its potential for heightening awareness of risks to the community. No company should take for granted the community relations implications of this process. To do so would put your company's reputation at risk.
What should you do if the Risk Management Program rule affects your facility? Here are a few tips:
Strongly assert your company's commitment to health and safety and to the protection of the environment. Now is not the time to get defensive.
Involve community stakeholders in the development of your risk management plan. Outreach to the community demonstrates your company's interest in being open and candid about risks and how they are managed.
Take the mystery out of your processes. Explain what goes on in your facility and do it in simple, clear, jargon-free language. If it is feasible, offer plant tours.
Emphasize the management component of your risk management plan. Managers should keep in mind that the purpose of the rule is to encourage operators to develop plans to ``prevent accidents and protect the community.''
Encourage employees to help you communicate your messages on risk management to the public.
Anticipate the concerns of special interest community segments. This may require some community reconnaissance as well as some coordination with local, state and federal agencies. Do any schools or hospitals fall within the radius of your worst-case scenario release? What about nursing homes, wildlife sanctuaries, or other environmentally sensitive areas?
Promote the positive aspects of your facility. You can make even your facility's minimal risk more tolerable by otherwise demonstrating its value.
Recognize that people perceive risks other than health and safety concerns. They are concerned with issues such as property values and intangibles like community image and reputation. No matter how bulletproof your risk management plan is, the specter of risk is enough to tarnish a community.
For example, it would be helpful for residents to know that many facilities besides yours also fall within the reporting requirements. This more realistic, ``we're-all-in-this-together'' context will dilute the effect on individual communities.
Finally, remember that risk communication engages people on an emotional level. Some residents are likely to react negatively despite your best efforts to minimize these emotions. Don't give up. Get beyond it. Ultimately, trust is built through honesty and accountability, qualities that take time to demonstrate. So you'll need to demonstrate one more quality — patience.
Hall is a vice president at Caponigro Public Relations Inc. in Southfield, Mich. He specializes in risk communications and environmental affairs.