Environmental Management Systems – Your A – Z guide


The following list of Questions and Answers is being compiled to help provide a quick guidance source on regularly raised EMS issues

1.  What is an Environmental Management System?

An Environmental Management System (EMS) is a structured framework for managing an organisation's significant environmental impacts.

2.  When did Environmental Management Systems develop?   

Although their history can be traced earlier, the development of EMS's was significantly advanced in the early 1990s, following the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and the emergence of national EMS standards (BS 7750 being the first). These in turn led through to European and international standard developments (i.e. EMAS Eco-Management and Audit scheme and ISO 14,001).   

3.  Why do we need an EMS? 

An EMS can help your business or organisation to comply with environmental laws and regulations more consistently and effectively. It also can help you identify and capitalise on environmental opportunities that go beyond compliance.

4.  To implement an EMS, will we have to start from scratch?

Much of what you have in place now for environmental management probably can be incorporated into the EMS. There is no need to "start over" and you should look to build environmental management requirements into your exiting management structure, rather than developing your EMS as a stand alone system.

5.  Will all organisations benefit from an EMS or just large companies? 

All businesses can benefit from a systematic approach to ensure that their resource use is well managed, to achieve associated financial savings through efficiency measures and to ensure that the business is not breaching current or developing environmental legislation. There are many examples of small organisations that have implemented an EMS and gained significant business benefits.  

6.  Will an EMS help us prevent pollution?

A commitment to preventing pollution is a cornerstone of an effective EMS and should be reflected in an organisation's policy, objectives and other EMS elements. Of course, it's what you do on your site and the actions that you undertake to protect the environment that really matter. The EMS will help you to do it effectively.

 7.  How much will it cost

In the medium term, effective EMS should prove to be at least cost neutral and will often lead through to sustained savings via environmental efficiencies in waste and energy management.  Organisations can approach the development of their EMS in many different ways, for example in larger companies staff may be directly employed whilst in smaller businesses existing staff may be trained and duties extended to include the EMS. In some instances consultants are appointed to assist with EMS development and some businesses have benefited from grant aided / funded programmes promoting EMS development.

8.  How will an EMS affect my existing compliance obligations?

An EMS will not result in more or less stringent legal compliance obligations. But an EMS should improve your efforts to comply with legal obligations, and in some cases, may lead to more flexible compliance requirements.

 9.  Why is continuous improvement an important concept in EMS? 

Continual improvement in overall environmental performance is a fundamental principle in EMS and is accordingly defined within respective standards. The principle is one that allows for phased improvement (achievable over a period). It also helps to ‘build in' and sustain achieved improvements. An effective EMS will enable organisations to target, achieve and demonstrate continuous improvement in environmental performance as one integrated management process.  

10.  How do Environmental Management Systems relate to other management systems?

An EMS is generally more effective when integrated within an organisation's wider management systems.  As standards have developed, there has been an increasing trend of compatibility and complementary system elements (for instance between Quality Systems and Environmental Management Systems).   

11.  What are significant environmental impacts and how are they determined?

Assessing the significance of an environmental impact is one of the more involved parts of the EMS process.  There are many different tools and techniques and often more than one approach is used. In many circumstances, professional judgment will play an important role in determining how to address significance and this can be helped through consultation with appropriate stakeholders. The significance of an impact can be assessed through consideration of:

  • Size, nature, frequency, likelihood and duration of the environmental impact;
  • The sensitivity of the receiving environment and the extent to which the impact is reversible;
  • The extent to which the impact (or the activity, product or service which causes it) is covered by environmental laws and regulations, or contractual requirements; and
  • The importance of the impact to interested parties e.g. employees, neighbours, regulators.

12.  What is certification?

Organisations may decide to have an external body confirm that their EMS meets the requirements of standards such as ISO 14001 and this process is known as certification. Certification is not mandatory and ISO 14001 does allow organisations to self-certify that they have met all of the requirements of the standard. However, there are a number of benefits that can be gained by an organisation having its EMS externally certified - http://www.iema.net/ems/index.php/certificationbenefits  

13.  What is Accreditation?

In order to ensure that certification bodies undertake their EMS assessments in a similar and comparable way and that certificates issued by different certification bodies are equivalent, a process of accreditation has been established. National accreditation bodies undertake assessments to ensure that certification bodies carry out their assessments appropriately and use competent people. In the UK, the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) is the national accreditation body. For further information go to http://www.ukas.com/ An International Accreditation Forum (IAF) has been established to ensure consistent standards between accreditation bodies, which is achieved through a process of peer review. The IAF has published guidance to help participating accreditation bodies undertake their work (IAF, 2001). Accredited certification to ISO 14001 is usually the only form of recognition that is given by customers and regulators, so you should check that your certification body is accredited through the IAF process.