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How to determine the scope of the EMS according to ISO 14001:2015

Determining the scope of the EMS is a vital function; effective operation cannot be had if this is done incorrectly. Here are some tips to help.

In a previous article named Determining the context of the organization we looked at the impact that section 4 of the ISO 14001:2015 standard had on organizations and their EMS (Environmental Management System). Within section 4 we find section 4.3, which deals specifically with determining the “scope” of the EMS. Given that this issue is given extra prominence and more specific detail than in the ISO 14001:2004 standard, it is easy to see that extra emphasis is given to ensure that due care and consideration are given to this vital component. So, what exactly is the scope, and what do we have to do to ensure that we define it correctly for the EMS?

Determining the scope: What does it mean?

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The English Dictionary defines “scope” as “the area or range covered by an activity.” This fits the context of its use within the ISO 14001:2015 standard perfectly, and the wording of section 4.3 encourages us more specifically than before to consider all factors when defining the issues that our EMS must control, and all potential effects that the performance of the EMS itself may have, and to whom. Let us look at what factors section 4.3 asks us to take into consideration, and what they really mean to us in a practical sense:

  • External and internal issues mentioned in the “context of the organization” section: Both must be considered to ensure the scope is defined correctly and the EMS is effective. External factors may be the needs of neighbors, political factors, and so forth.
  • Compliance factors: Obviously, all compliance obligations must be considered and met for your EMS to be considered compliant and to function effectively.
  • The organizational units, functions, and physical boundaries: This is self-explanatory, as these factors are part of the basic considerations in terms of how your organization actually operates.
  • Activities, products, and services: Your activities and services will help define the scope of your EMS. Consider, for instance, the difference between a nuclear power station and a coffee shop. Both have vastly differing activities and products, but to have an effective EMS, both will have to define these products and activities to assess the impact within the organizational scope.
  • The authority and ability to exert control and influence: The EMS cannot be effective without control of its components and demonstration of some influence over the external aspects mentioned above.

The standard advises that the scope should be maintained and be available to interested parties as “documented information,” a term specific to ISO 14001:2015 that we looked at in the article A new approach to documented information in ISO 14001:2015. So, another factor to consider is that your definition of your EMS scope is so critical that you must commit your findings to documented information, as it is considered even more important than in the 14001:2004 standard. This serves the dual purpose of allowing you to make this critical information available to stakeholders, shareholders, and external parties, and also to allow you to continually review and improve the scope of the EMS itself. So, what else do we have to do?

Defining the scope: What else?

Given that the definition of the scope of the EMS lies within section 4, “Context of the organization,” it is clear that the two are very closely related. Without being accurate on both of these tasks, no matter how effective your identification of environmental aspects and actions to control them, you will have issues outside the scope of your EMS that go unchecked as a result. Compliance at audit time will also be a problem if you cannot demonstrate that the scope has been properly considered, researched, defined, and documented. However, if you do this correctly you will have an excellent basis to build your EMS upon, and this foundation will start you off on the right foot for excellent EMS performance.

To ensure that you meet the standard’s requirements, visit our  ISO 14001:2015 Internal Auditor online course.

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