ISO 14001 risks and opportunities vs. environmental aspects

ISO 14001 has always talked about the importance of identifying, understanding, and controlling your environmental aspects for better environmental performance, but the newly released standard, ISO 14001:2015, also includes requirements for understanding and addressing your risks and opportunities related to your Environmental Management System (EMS). So, the question is, what is the difference between these two concepts and how do you use them in your EMS?

What are EMS environmental aspects?

An environmental aspect is any potential interaction that your business processes have with the environment. When these interactions happen they will have an impact on the environment, either positive or negative. Part of the requirements of ISO 14001 is to identify your environmental aspects and impacts, and determine which impacts are significant, so that you can take actions to control these significant environmental aspects. It is by controlling these environmental aspects that you can eliminate the environmental impacts they can cause; this is how you control your environmental performance in the EMS.

For example, if you have a chemical process for cleaning your parts that uses a cleaning chemical in it, you will very likely have to control the use and disposal of this chemical bath when it is depleted. For this process, you will have several environmental aspects, such as a potential spill of the chemical and the handling of toxic waste. You would control this by employing a certified waste hauler who can safely handle this chemical and dispose of it properly. Thus, you would prevent the negative environmental impact for your environmental aspects.

For a more detailed look at significant environmental impact in the EMS, see this blog post on What makes an environmental aspect significant in ISO 14001?

What are EMS risks and opportunities?

While the environmental impacts that result from your environmental aspects could be an area of risk or opportunity for your business, they are not what is referred to in the ISO 14001:2015 standard when it discusses risks & opportunities. The reason that risks and opportunities are included in the planning section of ISO 14001:2015 (section 6.1.1) is as follows:

  • Ensure that the EMS can meet the intended outcomes
  • Prevent or reduce undesired effects or potential effects from the organization
  • Continual improvement

So, you need to identify the risks and opportunities that are present for your EMS, decide which need to be addressed, and keep documentation of the risks and opportunities you will address.

As an understanding of the difference, take the example above. With the chemical used you could identify a risk that the chemical was soon to be discontinued and you would need to use a more environmentally harmful chemical in its place in the future. You could also find an opportunity to replace the harmful chemical with one that has just come onto the market and is more environmentally safe to use. While these risks and opportunities are related to your environmental aspect, they are not the risk that was directly indicated by your environmental aspect when it was identified.

So, there is a relationship between environmental aspects and risks and opportunities in the EMS, but this is not the only place to find risks and opportunities. Environmental aspects are not the only risks and opportunities that you will be able to identify for your EMS, even though they are a good place to start looking. Risks and opportunities can also arise from your legal environmental requirements (especially when they change), information from your customers or market research, benchmarking your processes against other companies for improvement, suggestions from employees, or feedback from neighbors or other external interested parties.

How you identify risks and opportunities is up to you, but it is an important activity within your EMS. Risks and opportunities can present a great list of ideas that can be used for the continual improvement of your Environmental Management System.

What do you need to do about environmental risks and opportunities?

It is important to note that there is no requirement for you to have a documented system for identifying your risks and opportunities, nor do you need to formally track what they are or how you will address them. The only requirement for documentation with respect to risks and opportunities is to “maintain documented information about the risks and opportunities that need to be addressed.” You do not necessarily need to have a method to track and monitor your risks and opportunities.

After identifying the risks and opportunities that need to be addressed, you then also need to plan to take actions to address them (section 6.1.4). This can include using them in your decision of which environmental objectives to put in place (section 6.2.1), but you are not required to have an environmental objective for every risk or opportunity identified.

The last mention of risks and opportunities is that management review (section 9.3) needs to consider the changes in your risks and opportunities during the review of the EMS sustainability, adequacy, and effectiveness.

Use risks and opportunities for yourself, not just ISO 14001 certification

It is not hard to see that identifying the risks and opportunities that are applicable to your business just makes sense when you have a management system and are trying to improve. It is only by managing your risks and taking action to gain the benefit of your opportunities that your business will be able to improve how it functions; improvement is impossible if you don’t start here.

So, don’t just look at environmental risks and opportunities because you have to in order to become certified to ISO 14001:2015; do it because it makes good business sense to understand and address the risks and opportunities of your business.

For a better understanding of the ISO 14001:2015 requirements and how to address them in your company, check out this free online  ISO 14001:2015 Foundations Course.

Advisera Mark Hammar
Mark Hammar
Mark Hammar is a Certified Manager of Quality / Organizational Excellence through the American Society for Quality and has been a Quality Professional since 1994. Mark has experience in auditing, improving processes, and writing procedures for Quality, Environmental, and Occupational Health & Safety Management Systems, and is certified as a Lead Auditor for ISO 9001, AS9100, and ISO 14001.