As we approach the busiest season of the year, fireworks retailers and display companies can expect an inspection from one, if not several, law enforcement and regulatory agencies. These inspections are deliberately timed to occur during your busy season due to the increased level of activity and, oftentimes, are unannounced (especially federal investigators). The best thing you can do is be prepared for the inspection, and the purpose of this article is to provide you some helpful tips in smoothing out the process.
The answer is relatively straight forward and simple—training and review. Many government agencies have established regulations containing mandatory training requirements that you must take the time review and comply with. In addition, it is important that you make sure that all required training is properly documented, updated and kept in its proper format. Oftentimes, one of the first documents that an investigator will ask to see is your training records. In addition to making sure the training is done correctly, you should have a quality control program in place; this can be as simple as reviewing your shipping papers, walking the floor of your facility, and inspecting your packages to confirm that you are in compliance. It is also prudent to periodically review your security plan to make sure that it continues to satisfy prevailing requirements.
You only have one chance to make a first impression, so your receptionist (should you have one) must be instructed to promptly announce the arrival of any government investigator directly to senior management who, in turn, sets your inspection protocol in motion. The protocol should include notifying your designated person, and their trained assistant, of the presence of the investigators. The designated person should be an employee that is thoroughly familiar with the inspection process and procedures specific to each agency (e.g., DOT, ATF); this employee will also be responsible for providing initial responses to any questions and comments made by the investigator(s) and, therefore, must understand the appropriate and proper responses to give to an investigator. For purposes of this article we will call that person the “Compliance Officer”; the second employee serves only in the capacity of a witness to all events and conversations, and that employee should be instructed not to say anything, nor interfere with the inspection process.
The two employees should introduce themselves to the government investigator(s) and explain that each has been designated by the business to participate in the inspection process. This procedure will help you to keep the facts and events straight and, at the same time, avoid the confusion and inconsistency that arises when several individuals are involved in the inspection process. Oftentimes, several investigators arrive and fan out around the business premises and in this instance you should assign an employee to accompany each investigator. However, it must be explained to the investigators that these employees are not authorized to respond for the business; in turn, the employee should be instructed to only assist, observe and report. Further, because government investigators have the right to ask questions of any of your employees, it is prudent that you confirm that all employees are fully aware of their roles but, nonetheless, they should also be advised that the company Compliance Officer has the main responsibility for any inspection. All questions from any investigator can be directed to the Compliance Officer for the convenience of all parties and to avoid confusion and minimize mistakes. Also, the Compliance Officer should, periodically, undertake to perform an informal inspection of the business operations for purposes of identifying and correcting any potential violations in advance of any formal inspection.
The compliance officer must be user-friendly; meaning, he or she must be able to remain calm in the face of government investigators who may act imperiously, arbitrarily and capriciously. The inspection process is not the time to argue (you will be provided an opportunity to dispute any violation that may result); rather, it is a time to listen and observe. Over time, the Compliance Officer will come to understand the peculiarities, temperament and tolerance of each investigator and, as a result, should be able to anticipate issues and reactions; over the course of time, a comfort level by and between your employee and the investigator may develop.
A written record of the time the inspection began and ended should be made, together with notes describing what was said by the investigator(s), as well as what was inspected and observed, and for how long. You may want to consider providing each employee involved in the inspection process with a camera to photograph the subject or location of the alleged violation. The photograph should be dated and signed by the photographer for purposes of authenticating it later. Documenting the inspection in this manner may assist in avoiding issuance of questionable violations by the government investigator. In the unlikely event an investigator becomes irate about the presence of a camera, have your employee calmly explain that your business has instituted this procedure as a standard operating procedure and, thus, what may be unfamiliar at first will soon be routine. If deemed necessary, you can always instruct your employee to advise the investigator that, in the spirit of cooperation, the employee will refrain from taking photographs (during the inspection process). Make a written record of the investigator’s demand to cease photographing, specifying the date, time, and the substance of the investigator’s objections; and, thereafter, photograph the subject or location of the investigator’s violations outside his presence. All of the written notes and photographs should be maintained in a separate file bearing the date and identity of the agency for future reference, if necessary.
In conclusion, it is important that the inspection process be treated with utmost seriousness. Suffice it to say, a proactive approach to inspections is likely to be the difference between success and failure. Those businesses that do not already have a Compliance Officer should seriously consider designating one.