Editor’s Comments: An Environmental Management System

Sept. 2, 2011

Have you ever sat down and figured how much time you spend each ear dealing with regulators, explaining how what you’re doing meets their standards first on one project, and then having to go through the whole exercise again with somebody else on your next project? Ditto when it comes to fielding complaints and doing make-good work.

How would you like to go through an entire year without any regulatory hassles…without spending your valuable time fielding complaints…without having to go back and redo work you’ve already completed? “Fairy-tale stuff,” you’re probably thinking. Still, a pretty nice thought isn’t it? And maybe it’s not so far-fetched as you might imagine, particularly if you consider that many of your troubles are rooted in a lack of standardization.

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A Case For Standardization
As explained by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO):

Standards are documented agreements containing technical specifications or other precise criteria to be used consistently as rules, guidelines, or definitions of characteristics, to ensure that materials, products, processes, and services are fit for their purpose.

For example, the format of the credit cards, phone cards, and “smart” cards that have become commonplace is derived from an ISO International Standard. Adhering to the standard, which defines such features as an optimal thickness (0.76 mm), means that the cards can be used worldwide.

International Standards thus contribute to making life simpler and to increasing the reliability and effectiveness of the goods and services we use.

Put into the context of construction, ISO 14001-an internationally accepted environmental management program-offers some instructive thoughts for contractors, although, in all sincerity, I think the full-on process is a bit over the top for most of us. For a quick look at the process, however, you might want to go to http://www.iso.ch and follow the thread to the specifics of ISO 14001.

ISO 14001 is a management system rather than a performance standard. As such, it involves what I tend to characterize as a cultural rather than strictly behavioral process, centered on proactive management and total employee participation. Rather than a proscriptive, “top-down” set of rules and regulation, ISO 14001 asks all people involved in an operation to define their roles from the bottom up relative to the organization’s environmental policy.

In much the same way ISO 9001 addresses quality, ISO 14001’s framework helps you identify and control significant environmental aspects of a project. At its core it is a framework that allows a company to set out its environmental objectives and then implement programs for measuring, correcting, and reporting on performance. But that’s only the surface. When fully implemented, the system allows you to anticipate and prepare for the kinds of challenges you’re likely to face in any project…especially the ones that get you in trouble with regulators, often requiring corrective action and invariably taking you away from what you get paid to do.

Under ISO 14001, an EMS contains the following elements:

  • An environmental policy supported by top management
  • Identification of environmental aspects and significant impacts
  • Identification of legal and other requirements
  • Environmental goals, objectives, and targets that support the policy
  • An environmental management program
  • Definition of roles, responsibilities, and authorities
  • Training and awareness procedures
  • Process for communication of the EMS to all interested parties
  • Documentation of operational control procedures
  • Procedures for emergency response
  • Procedures for monitoring and measuring operations that can have a significant impact on the environment
  • Procedures to correct nonconformance
  • Record management procedures
  • A program for auditing and corrective action
  • Procedures for management review
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Cashing In on Your EMS
Aside from the obvious advantages of standardization-reduction of pollution-related incidents, decreased cost of remediation, and reduced insurance rates-there are a number of related benefits resulting the increased visibility you have into the workings of your entire operation. For instance, standards can help you define “best practices” that, in addition to helping complete the present project, become benchmarks for future projects. A well-constructed EMS can identify instances of redundancy in day-to-day efforts for regulatory compliance and includes procedures and metrics for measuring and evaluating wastes and the costs of environmental emissions. This information can help you choose proper BMPs, determining beforehand their probable results. Standards can be used to guide daily action and to determine the overall appropriateness of pollution prevention strategies. And, finally, a properly implemented EMS will lead to predictable environmental performance that can reduce and almost certainly limit the severity of incidents.

How about your organization? What standards have you implemented to streamline the regulatory process?