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Setting the standard: what is involved in achieving ISO 14001, the quality standard for environmental management systems

November 2000
Hélène Ashe-Roy
Editor, Management OHS&E journal

The demand for organisations to achieve certain quality standards is growing. ISO 14001 covers the environmental management systems within the ISO 14000 series of environmental standards (the others mainly cover environmental auditing). Going for ISO 14001 is not a soft option. It will take a minimum of 18 months and more likely two to three years to establish a track record for environmental performance that satisfies the certification body.

It will also require dedication from the main board and senior management down to the most junior employee and the provisions of resources in both people, time and finance to implement and maintain the system. It is interesting to note that the word 'shall', by definition a command, a duty or an obligation, appears no less than 50 times in the requirements text of the standard.

But there is an increasing demand from customers, suppliers and the community that business and industry show a visible commitment to improve environmental performance. It will enhance the organisation's reputation, may well save it money and give a clear advantage should environmental management become a statutory requirement.

So where do you start?
Organisations seeking to reach the standard have to demonstrate that they have fulfilled five main requirements: the setting up of an environmental policy; policy planning; the implementation and operation of policy; carrying out any necessary checking and corrective action; and periodic management review of the policy. The aim is to achieve a state of continued improvement.

The environmental policy has to be appropriate to the nature, the scale and environmental impacts of the organisation's activities and must commit it to continual improvement, the prevention of pollution and legislative compliance. It must also provide a framework for setting and reviewing environmental objectives and targets, must be documented, implemented, maintained and communicated to all employees and available to the public.

Planning involves the establishing the of procedures and should cover environmental aspects of the organisation's activities over which it has influence, the legal requirements of its activities, the environmental objectives and targets and environmental management programme.

Under the implementation and operation section come the designation of roles, responsibilities and authorities of those appointed to establish the environmental management system requirements and the provision of resources, including personnel with specialist skills, and the necessary technological and financial resources.

Senior Management
It is up to senior management to appoint specific representatives who have clearly defined roles, responsibilities and authority for ensuring the environmental management system requirements are established, implemented and maintained in accordance with the international standard.

They should report back to top management on the performance of the system for purposes of review and as basis for improvement.

The next stage covers training, competence of employees, depending on their roles and responsibilities and the impact their job has on the environment. People who perform tasks that can cause significant environmental impact should be competent on the basis of appropriate education, training or experience.

Raising awareness
There is also need to raise awareness amongst the whole workforce of the significance of individual work activities and their impact on the environment, together with the benefits of improved personal performance. This includes establishing and maintaining procedures for both internal and external communication.

A further element of implementation and operation is the setting up of a documentation system and procedures for document control. These documents should be reviewed, revised and approved periodically by authorised personnel, and they should be kept up-to-date, easily located, legible, tidy and retained for a specific period.

Operational control should stipulate operating criteria in line with the meeting the policy, objectives and targets of the environmental management system. Finally the organisation needs to set up a strategy to cover environmental emergencies and there should be periodic tests for emergency preparedness and response. If an accident or emergency occurs this procedure should be reviewed and revised.

Once procedures are in place the organisation needs to establish a system of checking and correcting which covers monitoring and measuring of key activities that impact on the environment and that have to comply with relevant environmental legislation and correcting or taking preventative action if any of these activities are shown to be not conforming with the required standard.

This includes the recording of information to track performance, relevant operational controls and conformity with the organisation's environmental objectives and targets. It also involves keeping accurate records of any action taken and results of environmental management audits and reviews.

Finally, the whole environment management system should come up for regular management review which will address the need for possible changes in policy and objectives so that the organisation demonstrates its ongoing commitment to continual improvement.

Major undertaking
Clearly going for ISO 14001 is a major undertaking and the first step any organisation considering going down the 14001 road is to select the certification body who will be carrying out the certification process and discuss with their representatives the interpretation of the standard in relation to your organisation and achievable timescales as well as to gain a full understanding of the certification process.

The assessment of environmental aspects of the functioning of an organisation should be activity-based and cover inputs by way of energy and materials, outputs such as products and services, the waste generated, such as solid or liquid waste, scrap metal, effluent or oils, and emissions generated, such as fumes, dusts, smoke, heat, VOCs, vibration and noise.

Main aspects
The six main aspects of an organisation's impact on the environment are in the areas of noise, waste, effluent emissions, contaminated land and energy use. An impact assessment should be considered for both normal and abnormal working conditions, such as during start-up, shut down, maintenance and breakdown.

In setting up an environmental management system you should select areas which you can target for early improvement. In the main these will be in energy use and waste generation. On principle that which gets measured gets done, an early objective should be to gather accurate measures of your energy usage, waste streams and quantities and their disposal routes.

When setting your initial objectives, following assessment of environmental aspects, it is better to walk before you run and not be over ambitious. Selected areas should be targeted on the basis of how critical they are to the overall environmental risk.

High priority should be given to areas where breaches of legislation are evident, or the risk of pollution is unacceptable. Once the critical areas have been brought and control, do not take your eye of the ball and lose sight of the operational needs required to maintain the new standard.

Achieving ISO 14001 is not a one-off operation, but a commitment to a continued and improving level of environmental performance.

Hélène Ashe-Roy is Editor, Management OHS&E journal
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