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Two Key Things You Need To Understand In ISO 14001

The two key concepts in the ISO 14001 standard which you’ll need to get to grips with in order to implement it properly.

ISO 14001 has become the de facto standard for designing and implementing an environmental management system. But there are two key concepts in the standard which you’ll need to get to grips with in order to implement it properly. The first is ‘Environmental Aspects and Impacts’, and the other is ‘Compliance’.

Environmental Aspects and Impacts

An organisation’s activities, products and services that interact with the environment are referred to as ‘aspects’, which may have a negative or positive impact on the environment. Typically, aspects might include emissions to air, discharges to water and waste, which in turn may generate environmental and health impacts such as global warming, water pollution or contaminated land.

Some activities, such as those of an office-based service, will have relatively minor environmental impacts, such as energy usage and emissions linked to air conditioning, whereas in some heavy industrial companies aspects such as processes that cause emissions to air and discharges to water may have significant environmental impacts.

Once you’ve identified an aspect, you then need to judge its impact on the environment. Is it major or minor? If it’s major, how can it be reduced? Can it be managed better? Do you have to do it at all, or is there another way?

Managing environmental aspects and impacts is arguably the most important component of an EMS, and your job is to determine which ones apply to you and their relative significance in terms of risks to the environment and then look at the controls you can put in place to minimise these as much as possible. These will usually sit in a register of significant aspects and impacts for you to monitor and update.

Compliance obligations and evaluation of compliance

ISO 14001:2015 has two main requirements when it comes to compliance:

Identify and have access to applicable compliance obligations

This is the important first step of making sure that you know all of the legal requirements related to the environmental aspects that are applicable to your company. Think about any chemicals you use - how do they relate to Control of Substances Hazardous to Health 2002 (COSHH)? Do you use cleaning products, fuel company vehicles, use paints or glues? How do you dispose of electrical equipment? Is it in line with the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations 2013?

Remember that these can originate at a local, regional, national, or even international level depending on the activities of your company. If you don’t know that a specific item of legislation exists, you will very likely not meet the requirements of the legislation.

Determine how these obligations apply to your organisation

Equally as important as knowing that a law exists that could be applicable to your environmental aspects is knowing if it actually applies to your situation and, if so, what obligations it places upon you. Whilst there is no formal requirement to have a legal register as such, the standard requires that documented information regarding compliance obligations is maintained.

So, once you have determined your compliance obligations, now you must evaluate your compliance. Here you must plan and implement a process to evaluate if you meet the environmental, legal and other requirements that are applicable to your business. In our COSHH example above, if you answered ‘yes’ to any of those things listed the chances are you’ll need to perform a ‘COSHH assessment’. This would be how you would demonstrate compliance.

Your compliance evaluation process needs to include:

  • Frequency of compliance evaluation: How often you are going to check to see if you meet the requirements of a particular item of legislation will vary, but your process needs to determine how often you will check each level of compliance. For example, you may need to continually check the make-up of effluent that you discharge into the sewage system, but you may only need to periodically check on how well you are diverting recycling from your landfill waste.

  • Evaluate compliance and take action: As an organisation, you need to make an assessment against the applicable regulations or other commitments to see if you meet these requirements, and take any actions necessary to become compliant if you are not.

  • Maintain the status of your compliance: In other words, always know if you actually comply with your legal requirements. If a requirement changes, you need to know about it and know if the change affects your compliance. If you make a change in your facility, you may need to evaluate whether you continue to meet all requirements, both during and after the change, even if you are not yet due to evaluate this according to your regular schedule.

These are two important concepts in ISO 14001, and next time we’ll be looking at another important part of the standard, namely how you undertake measures for emergency preparedness and response.

Article originated in The Ideas Distillery blog

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