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ISO 14001 Blog

Strahinja Stojanovic

ISO 14001:2015 – How to set criteria for environmental aspects evaluation

Evaluation of environmental aspects and determining their significance is at the very core of ISO 14001. Results of the evaluation will affect the objectives, operational controls, and many other elements of the EMS (Environmental Management System). The methodological framework set by standards ISO 14001 and ISO 14004 gives only general principles for environmental aspects assessment, which is regarded as one of the most critical stages of implementing an EMS.

Why is it important?

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Almost all activities, products, and services have some effect on the environment, and this can occur in any lifecycle stage of any activity, product, or service, i.e., from purchasing and distribution to usage and disposal. Such impacts can be local, regional, or global, long term and short term, with different levels of significance. The relationship between environmental aspects and impacts is one of cause and effect. An organization must understand and identify those environmental aspects that have or can have a significant impact on the environment, i.e., significant environmental aspects.

When establishing criteria for determining the significance of the environmental aspects, the organization needs to consider several factors: condition of the environment, information about appropriate legal and other requirements, and needs and expectations of interested parties. In other words, prior to the evaluation, the organization needs to determine its context. For more information, see: Determining the context of the organization in ISO 14001.

Identification of significant environmental aspects is necessary to determine where the controls or improvements are needed. And, it represents an ongoing process that improves the relationship of the organization with the environment and enables continual improvement of its environmental performance.

Determining the criteria

The significance is a relative concept; it cannot be defined in absolute values. What is significant for one organization doesn’t have to be for another. Evaluation of the significance includes application of technical analysis and judgment of the organization. Using criteria should help the organization to identify significant environmental aspects and their impacts. Establishing and applying the criteria should provide consistency and repeatability of the evaluation results.

When determining criteria for the significance, the organization needs to consider:

  • Criteria for environmental protection – such as scale, severity, and duration of the impact; or type, size, and frequency of environmental aspects
  • Legal and other requirements – e.g., limitations for emissions, licenses for emissions, regulations, etc.
  • Needs and expectations of interested parties – such as the ones related to the values of the organization, reputation, noise, smell, or visual degradation

Criteria for the significance can be related either to the environmental aspects or the environmental impacts. When applying the criteria, the organization needs to set levels or values of the significance related to each criterion, e.g., based on possibility of occurrence (probability/frequency) and its severity (consequence/intensity).

Different types of scales or ranking can be helpful when determining significance, e.g., quantitative in terms of numerical values, or qualitative in terms of level, such as high, medium, and low. The qualitative approach is suitable for smaller companies with relatively few environmental aspects. A quantitative evaluation of environmental aspects determines the most significant environmental aspect by using a formula derived from the Fine and Kinney method, to determine which impact has the highest risk (risk = probability x consequence). A number of elements can be added to the method: compliance with legislation and regulations, the potential for improvement of the environmental aspect, and any requirements from the head office are also considered. Of course, there are many possible variations to this approach. The organization needs to determine what environmental aspects are significant by using the limit values.

Greatest challenges

As stated above, the significance is a relative term and the biggest challenge when determining the significance is ensuring consistent and repeatable results. Although the probability and consequences of an environmental aspect cannot be objectively determined, if a number of people make an estimate independently of each other, and then discuss their findings with each other, they can arrive at a uniform assessment. I recommend first making individual assessments, then discussing the arguments and making a joint assessment. Including more people with different expertise and insight can help in acquiring proper results, which will affect the future steps in the implementation of the EMS.

The question I receive very often is what to do when the evaluation shows that there are no significant environmental aspects. Does this mean that we do not have to take any actions regarding the EMS? Significant environmental aspects are the backbone of the EMS, and you cannot create it without them. There are three things the organization can do in this case:

  • Lower the bar for significance.
  • Take some of the insignificant environmental aspects and proclaim them to be significant.
  • Change the methodology for determining significant environmental aspects by not defining them as significant or insignificant, but rather assigning operational control priority for each environmental aspect.

Key to success

Regardless of the methodology or criteria you adopt for the evaluation, the key is to consistently apply it, involve as many relevant people as possible, and conduct the reassessment periodically. This will ensure consistent results and updates in case of changes, which will enable you to distribute the resources where they are needed the most.

Many people are afraid that they won’t do it properly the first time. This shouldn’t be a problem, because you will need to conduct periodic reassessments that will help you incorporate new information and knowledge to update the list of significant environmental aspects and help you focus on the ones that are really important.

Click here and visit our free training  ISO 14001 Foundations online course to learn more about the criteria for environmental aspects.

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