Environmental audits are increasingly crucial for business success—and it’s up to environment, health, and safety (EHS) teams to lead the way. By taking steps to assess and strengthen compliance efforts, EHS managers protect not only the environment and the health and safety of employees, but also the financial interests and social reputation of the organization as a whole.
With so much at stake, it’s important for EHS professionals to have a solid foundational knowledge of environmental audits. While the type and complexity of an audit will vary depending on the specifics of your business, here are the key items to remember—the what, who, how, and why of environmental audits.
An environmental audit is a thorough, methodical examination of an operation’s compliance status against a set environmental standard. The operation may cover an entire company or individual sites within a larger organization, and the set standards may include federal, state, and local regulations; industry best practices; and/or environmental management frameworks (such as ISO 14001).
Environmental audits can be external, where an independent third party conducts a compliance audit, or internal, where an organization assesses its own environmental readiness and performance. External audits can be valuable to get an unbiased outside review of your EHS program (and are also a requirement of ISO 14001 certification). Regular internal audits, however, should be a cornerstone of your environmental compliance program and woven into your organizational EHS culture.
Effective environmental audits are collaborative and must include stakeholders beyond the confines of your EHS team. While you should keep your team relevant to the audit’s goals—for example, you likely won’t need to loop in sales and marketing employees to determine the state of hazardous waste compliance—an environmental audit should include interviews and input from employees representing diverse levels and roles, including:
Executive management. Even if not directly involved in conducting the environmental audit, upper management should understand its goals and be involved in analyzing results.
Frontline supervisors. As the bridge between management and employees, your frontline supervisors have their fingers on the pulse of most aspects regarding EHS culture. Their experience and training is invaluable to a thorough environmental compliance audit.
Employees. Your employees are the best source of knowledge for what really happens with day-to-day compliance. Maximize the quality of your audit by involving employees in the process and ensuring they understand that they will not be the subject of retaliation for reporting observed compliance shortfalls or environmental issues.
Select members of other organizational functions. Reviews of training, recordkeeping, and your EHS and/or learning management systems are vital aspects of an environmental audit—and some of their functionalities may touch various other functions within your organization, such as the HR or IT departments. If so, be sure the appropriate stakeholders are participating.
There are three basic phases that make up an environmental audit:
1. The pre-audit. During an environmental pre-audit, the audit team is finalized and plans and protocol for the audit are established. This also may include gathering or requesting documents for review and any other preparatory work necessary to launch the audit.
2. The audit. For the main event of an environmental audit, follow the protocols put in place during pre-audit. These may direct you to perform some or all of the following activities:
3. The post-audit. After your audit activities have been completed, it’s time to analyze the results and determine what corrective action might be necessary and/or how to otherwise improve the organization’s environmental efforts. Create a report that summarizes the audit data, identifies action items, and lays out a plan for improving performance.
All of these audit phases depend on your protocols, which are the checklists you follow throughout the audit that establish the standards against which you are evaluating your organization’s environmental compliance. When developing your environmental audit protocols, keep these things in mind:
Don’t cut corners. Environmental audit protocols are not one-size-fits-all, and beware any suggestion that they can be. While the EPA provides a great deal of helpful general protocols for complying with federal regulations as well as general guidance for environmental audits, these resources are just that—general. Don’t assume that you can simply download a set of protocols off of the Internet that will meet the unique needs of your company.
Know the scope. Understanding exactly what your audit must cover can help ease the creation of your audit protocols. Which operations within your organization need environmental scrutiny? Which specific regulations apply, and how can you not only meet their requirements, but exceed them?
Learn from history. If you’ve conducted environmental audits before (or had them conducted by a third party), what did they tell you? Were the protocols accurate and helpful? What did they reveal, and what did they overlook? Putting thought into these matters will help you continually develop better protocols and in turn deliver continually better performance.
Environmental audits position your organization to reap numerous rewards. These benefits include:
Protection against enforcement action. By regularly determining your organization’s readiness for environmental compliance, you are less likely to incur penalties and fines, and inspectors are less likely to find issues that might subject the company to increased scrutiny from regulatory agencies.
Taking programs beyond compliance and finding improved efficiency. Even if you have a perfect audit performance, the exercise of performing your assessment may lead you in new directions or illuminate areas of further improvement. This can lead to reduced waste and improved efficiency.
Competitive advantages. Organizations are under more pressure than ever to be good stewards of their environment. Environmental audits—especially those that lead to ISO 14001 certification—give your organization a good reputation as both a business partner and a corporate citizen.
Furthermore, a company that cares for its environment will likely also better protect the health and safety of its workers. It’s simply the right thing to do—a benefit in its own right.
The task of completing an internal environmental audit—or even preparing for an external audit—can be daunting. Even the most detail-oriented EHS manager can’t navigate all the complexity alone, which is why software is a valuable partner for environmental audit success.
Dakota Auditor can help you create and carry out effective environmental audits by helping you track relevant regulations specific to your organization. With the ability to generate up-to-date protocols and deliver insights into your audit data, Auditor can help ensure the quality and consistency of your environmental audits.
Check out our demo video of Auditor to discover how we can help.