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6 ways to deal with significant environmental aspects in your EMS

In any ISO 14001-certified EMS (Environmental Management System), identifying and dealing with environmental aspects is key to performance, and therefore, to the success of the system. With legislation, and considerations regarding your customers, shareholders, stakeholders and local community, there will be many things to consider when populating your environmental aspect register and identifying what aspects may be more or less significant. Therefore, it is important that when you identify an environmental aspect that is especially significant to your organization, you have an agreed method of dealing with that aspect that mitigates, improves, or even removes the impact it may have on the environment, if at all possible. So, how do you decide what environmental aspects are particularly significant, and what methods you can employ to deal with them?

Environmental aspects – More or less significant?

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When constructing the environmental register, most organizations will tend to rate the selected aspects on a scale of importance, as befits any kind of logical risk-based approach. It therefore stands to reason that the organization should identify aspects that present a higher level of risk to the organization in the short term, as opposed to those aspects that may present risk either to a lesser extent or further in the future. Using such a scoring system can help the organization prioritize environmental aspects, and decide which are more significant than others.

For example, factory emissions and packaging waste may both be identified aspects for your business and EMS, but if your emissions are almost above the legal boundaries for your region, then it might be prudent to decide that this impact to the environment and your stakeholders is more immediate and serious than a small amount of packaging waste. Therefore, it would make sense to consider the emissions issue a significant environmental risk, while the packaging issue could be considered less so, and tackled later. If you do not use a scoring system to classify your organization’s significant aspects against those less significant, it would be wise to do so. You can learn more in the article How to set criteria for environmental aspect evaluation.

Significant aspects – how to tackle them

Now that we have decided how to identify a significant environmental aspect, it makes sense to establish a process to ensure that they are tackled efficiently. Given that failure to mitigate or remove a significant aspect may mean that objectives are not attained and continual improvement is not evident, it is clear to see that incorrect management of significant environmental aspects is a risk to the performance of the EMS. Let us examine some methods of tackling this scenario:

  1. Ensure your significant aspects are discussed and monitored at your regular environmental meetings. This is very basic, but very important also.
  2. Have a “brain dump” and ask your most creative people to help in finding a solution to solving your most significant environmental aspects – some fresh brainpower may help to uncover a solution you don’t already see. Involve your leaders at the outset, too. This level of consultation can help you find solutions previously unconsidered.
  3. Create a project team: A significant environmental aspect can be treated similarly to any other project. By assigning a project manager, methods of action, measurement, review, and responsibility you can ensure that a significant aspect gets the attention it requires, and “project creep” does not become a factor.
  4. Record all data accurately. This is critical for a number of reasons – to ensure you are measuring action and progress accurately, to ensure that a record exists on your EMS for audit and future reference purposes, and to demonstrate that you are achieving the continual improvement that the ISO 14001 standard is underpinned by. Progress should also be recorded on your environmental aspect register, where the aspects would have been recorded at the outset.
  5. Ensure you set a review date to review a significant aspect. Even if you are sure the root cause has been tackled and removed, it is often good practice to check after a predetermined period that no reoccurrence has been seen. In some cases this can capture a reoccurrence at a low level, and ensure any further corrective action is of a minor nature, which may not only save your organization work and resource in the short term, but protect your organization in the longer term where stakeholders are concerned.
  6. Communicate effectively: Whether communicating internally or externally, an accurate and transparent flow of information is vital. Stakeholders will often be interested in how you deal with significant environmental aspects, especially when it comes to legislation issues, so communicating clearly gives them the chance to see what your organization’s EMS is achieving. This also opens the feedback loop and may allow suggestions that allow you to improve your processes accordingly. Read more about this element in the article How to perform communication related to the EMS.

Dealing successfully with your significant environmental impacts

It will soon become clear that dealing with significant environmental impacts involves many of the clauses and elements mentioned in the ISO 14001 standard itself: consultation, communication, assessment of risk, communication, and leadership. What is also clear is that the “Plan, Do, Check, Act” cycle is very much apparent when it comes to dealing with significant and important aspects. Clear leadership, documentation of action and responsibility, and accurate measurement can ensure you have the necessary foundations for reducing the impact of any significant impact that has a major effect on your EMS performance. If you stick to the basic principles of the ISO 14001 standard, your EMS performance and the greater environment will undoubtedly benefit as a result.

Why not use our free online training  ISO 14001:2015 Foundations Course to learn more about environmental aspects?

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