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Environmental Audits and ISO 14001: Navigating Your Path to Confident Compliance

April 28th, 2022 by Dakota Software Staff

Environmental Audits and ISO 14001: Navigating Your Path to Confident Compliance

Environmental audits are key to shoring up confidence in your organization’s compliance programs. Many companies, however, are unsure of where to start—and an audit’s success depends on thoughtful construction, preparation, and implementation. What do you need for a proper environmental audit? How do you translate an audit into compliance results? And where does ISO 14001 fit into all of this?

It’s best to employ an Environmental Management System to streamline the effort necessary for creating and conducting environmental audits. But there are several considerations that every company must take into account for environmental auditing, and they can make a great difference in protecting against financial and reputational costs. Here’s what you need to know to successfully navigate your chosen path toward compliance.

Gearing Up for Your Environmental Audit

An environmental audit is a methodical examination of your organization’s preparedness and performance against a set standard. That standard may be regulatory requirements, industry best available practices, an environmental management framework, or all of the above.

In the pre-audit phase of your journey, your environment, health, and safety (EHS) team should consider key questions that will determine how to proceed:

  • What are the benefits, objectives, and scope of your environmental audit? The “why” of auditing comes first—understand that your task will help prevent adverse environmental outcomes and protect the organization against financial and reputational risks. Create an audit team that brings diverse skills and talents to the process, draw up a plan that is properly focused on the specific risks facing your company, and request documentation (permits, training records, reports, and previous audits, if available) for review. Appropriately define the scope of your audit; if it’s too narrow you may not identify compliance gaps, and if it’s too broad you may subject yourself to needless complexity and potential confusion.

  • What environmental regulations apply to the worksite you are auditing? Knowing which laws apply within the scope of your audit is a must to keep the process efficient. For example, if your organization generates hazardous waste and sends it to a treatment, storage, and disposal facility (TSDF), then focus on the requirements for containment, storage, and shipping of hazardous waste—but don’t waste time learning all of the detailed regulations that apply to TSDFs themselves.

  • What would a regulator do? Put yourself in an inspector’s shoes. Where would you look for issues at your facility? Are there any previous compliance failures you must revisit in your audit to ensure they’ve been properly addressed?

Launch … and Learn

Now you’re ready to launch your environmental audit. Remember to include these important steps as you work through the process.

Conduct frequent meetings throughout. Audits should be well-communicated, transparent, and keep all key stakeholders (including upper management) in the loop. Set clear guidelines and expectations every step of the way.

Perform a document review. Ensure that your environmental documentation is complete and will hold up to scrutiny. Key documents to review include:

  • Site maps and floor plans. Some environmental regulations strictly define where industrial activity may take place or how facilities must be designed to prevent adverse environmental impacts.

  • Permits and/or chemical lists. Are all of your permits up to date? Do you have an accurate inventory of chemicals and appropriate safety data sheets (SDSs)?

  • Required plans, procedures, and/or policies. Emergency response plans are a big factor in environmental compliance—ensure that yours pass muster.

  • Training records. Some regulations require timeliness of training and maintenance of records for a certain period of time.

  • Any other relevant environmental reports. Do you have previous reports from inspections or audits? Recorded employee complaints or suggestions? Review anything that may help your environmental compliance efforts.

Conduct site inspections. Conduct walkthroughs, evaluate your operations, and interview personnel—not just EHS staff, but frontline supervisors and employees as well. Are they well-trained and know what to do in the event of an environmental incident? Take water or air samples during your inspections if they are relevant to your processes and regulatory obligations. Remember to put yourself in a regulatory inspector’s shoes—if they’d check on something, you should check on it during the audit.

Conduct a closing meeting. Identify any concerns or noncompliance issues that have been discovered during the audit, and share them with key stakeholders. Learn from these issues, develop a plan for corrective action, and begin taking steps to implement these actions.

If this sounds like a lot of information to process, it is—which is why EHS software is an increasingly critical tool for maintaining environmental compliance in the modern workplace.

How Does ISO 14001 Fit In?

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14001 Environmental Management Standard sets criteria for organizational environmental management, and companies can strive to be ISO 14001 certified.

The ISO 14001 framework relies heavily on rigorous environmental auditing, but its system is entirely voluntary. While proper auditing can help assure better environmental compliance to avoid fines and penalties, ISO 14001 certification can offer benefits above and beyond compliance. These benefits include:

  • A competitive advantage. As concern for environmental issues becomes central to business, many large companies audit their supply chains. An organization with ISO 14001 certification stands out as a trustworthy, environmentally conscious business partner.

  • Improved efficiency and reduced waste. Organizations that implement ISO 14001 may see not only improved environmental performance, but increased overall efficiency across the organization.

  • Financial benefits. ISO case studies have shown that ISO 14001 certification provides an economic benefit to a company ranging between 0.5% and 4% of their annual sales revenue.

Environmental audits should be a core part of your EHS program regardless of whether you choose to pursue certification. By integrating environmental management systems with organizational goals, however, ISO 14001 can help make EHS a core part of your company structure.

Stay One Step Ahead

Once a proven auditing process is put in place, it’s a great achievement—but the work doesn’t end there. Like so many other business processes, environmental auditing programs must continually evolve to keep pace with regulatory change and any newly developed industry best practices. The only way to keep up on the winding path of compliance is to constantly stay one step ahead. Few EHS teams have the time or resources to develop proprietary tools that can confidently deliver compliance success.

Dakota Software’s Auditor has the ability to centralize your audit program (including your documentation and analytics) as well as easily generate audit protocols based on current requirements applicable to your industry and organization. Watch the Auditor demo video today to start down your path of confident environmental compliance.

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