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How to Prepare for and Conduct Environmental Audits

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    Environmental responsibility isn't just a buzzword — it's a business imperative. For manufacturers, environmental audits provide valuable insights into a company's environmental performance, help ensure compliance with regulations, and demonstrate a commitment to protecting the natural world. 

    However, these audits can be complex and daunting. So we're going to demystify the process and give manufacturers and safety managers clear, actionable advice on preparing for and conducting environmental audits.

    What is an environmental audit?

    An environmental audit is a systematic, documented, and objective evaluation of how well an organization, its management, and its equipment are performing in terms of safeguarding the environment.

    Environmental audits are an important part of EHS management and have three main purposes:

    1. Ensure compliance with environmental laws and regulations

    2. Evaluate the effectiveness of the current environmental management system and procedures

    3. Uncover inefficiencies and areas where environmental performance can be improved

    Frequency and duration

    The frequency and duration of environmental audits vary based on industry type, regulatory requirements, and the company's internal policies. 

    On average, they are conducted annually. However, companies that operate in highly regulated industries, like chemical manufacturers, for example, might perform them more frequently.  

    The duration of an audit can range from a few days to several weeks, depending on the size and complexity of the operations being evaluated.

    Regulatory requirements and standards

    Understanding the regulatory landscape is crucial for conducting effective environmental audits. Here are some key standards and regulations:

    1. ISO 14001: This is an international standard that specifies requirements for an effective environmental management system (EMS). It provides a framework that a company can follow to set up an EMS to ensure compliance and promote environmental protection.

    2. Local and national regulations: These vary by country and region but generally include laws related to air and water quality, waste management, chemical safety, and biodiversity protection. Compliance with these regulations is mandatory and forms a core part of environmental audits.

    3. Industry-specific standards: Different industries have unique environmental impacts and thus may be subject to specific standards and guidelines. For example, the chemical industry might follow the Responsible Care program, while the EU electronics industry might adhere to the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS).

    In essence, regular audits enable companies to take a proactive approach to environmental management and sustainability.

    The 3 main types of environmental audits

    Environmental audits can be categorized into three main types: compliance audits, management audits, and functional audits. Each type has specific objectives, methodologies, and benefits.

    A table comparing the three main types of environmental audits based on factors like purpose, duration, and outcomes

    Environmental compliance audits

    Environmental compliance audits help determine whether a company adheres to relevant environmental laws, regulations, and permit requirements. These audits are typically the most comprehensive and expensive type.

    In the US, environmental compliance audits assess the company’s adherence to local, national, and international environmental regulations, such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.  

    Environmental compliance audits are usually done once a year (or more often if the industry is highly regulated). They can be conducted both internally and externally:

    • Internal: Conducted by the company's own environmental management team to proactively identify and address compliance issues before external inspections.

    • External: Unbiased assessment conducted by independent third-party auditors or regulatory agencies can be required for specific certification or as part of a legal settlement.

     The outcomes of these audits can have significant business implications:

    1. Permit renewals and approvals: Successfully passing a compliance audit can be a prerequisite for renewing existing environmental permits or obtaining new ones.

    2. Certification and accreditation: In some cases, compliance audits are part of the process for obtaining environmental certifications, such as ISO 14001. 

    3. Corrective actions and penalties: If an audit identifies non-compliance issues, the company may need to take corrective actions to address these deficiencies. Failure to do so can result in fines, penalties, or legal action from regulatory bodies.

    4. Stronger reputation: Companies that consistently pass compliance audits can use their strong environmental record to strengthen their brand image.

    Environmental management audits

    An environmental management audit assesses the effectiveness of an organization's environmental management system (EMS). It evaluates whether an EMS is properly designed, implemented, and maintained to meet the organization's environmental policies, goals, and regulatory requirements. 

    The primary objective of this audit type is to ensure continuous improvement in environmental performance and to help organizations achieve sustainability goals.

    Environmental management audits are typically conducted on an annual basis. They can be done internally to identify and address issues before an external audit or regulatory inspection. If the company successfully passes the external audit, it can get (or renew) its ISO 14001 certification. 

    Functional environmental audits

    Functional environmental audits assess specific systems or processes within an organization for environmental performance and compliance. 

    Functional audits are performed to ensure that critical operations, such as waste management, water usage, energy consumption, and emissions control, meet environmental objectives and regulatory requirements. By focusing on specific areas, they provide detailed insights that can drive targeted improvements.

    Their frequency varies based on the criticality of the function, regulatory requirements, and the organization’s environmental goals. They are usually conducted on a regular basis, such as quarterly or biannually. They may be scheduled in response to specific events, such as changes in regulations or operational incidents.

    Like the other two types, functional audits can be performed internally or externally:

    • Internal: These audits are conducted by the organization's own staff, often those who have specific knowledge of the area being audited. Internal functional audits allow for frequent and flexible assessments, quickly addressing issues as they arise.

    • External: These audits are performed by independent third-party auditors with expertise in the specific function being reviewed. External functional audits provide an objective evaluation and can be required for certain certifications or regulatory compliance.

    Why are environmental audits important?

    Environmental audits are critical for business continuity. Here are seven reasons why you should regularly perform them in your organization:

    1. Regulatory compliance: Adherence to environmental laws and regulations helps you avoid legal penalties and protect your business's reputation.

    2. Risk management: Identifying and mitigating potential environmental risks prevents incidents and reduces liability.

    3. Operational efficiency: Uncovering inefficiencies in resource usage and waste management saves money and improves performance.

    4. Continuous improvement: Using a solid framework for evaluating and enhancing environmental management systems and processes helps your organization improve sustainability efforts over time.

    5. Stakeholder confidence: Transparency and commitment to environmental responsibility build trust among customers, investors, employees, and the community.

    6. Sustainability goals: Measuring progress towards sustainability targets helps you identify improvement areas and drive meaningful environmental impact.

    7. Certification and recognition: Certifications like ISO 14001 and LEED help you gain formal recognition and a competitive advantage.

    How to conduct a standard environmental audit

    We can’t give you an exact list of steps to follow as the process changes based on your industry, goals, tools you have access to, and the type of audit in question. Still, there are some general guidelines that will work in most situations. 

    List of steps for conducting environmental audits.

    Phase 1: Preparation for the audit 

    Proper planning ensures that the audit process runs smoothly and that all relevant areas are thoroughly evaluated. At this stage, you’ll want to:

    1. Define the scope and objectives: Determine the areas, processes, and activities to be audited, such as specific departments or compliance aspects. Clearly outline audit goals, like assessing compliance or identifying opportunities for improvement.

    2. Assemble your audit team: Select qualified auditors with the necessary expertise. Assign specific roles and responsibilities to ensure clear communication and coordination.

    3. Develop an audit plan: Establish a timeline with key milestones. Prepare checklists and tools to guide the audit and gather relevant documents like policies, permits, and previous reports.

    4. Notify stakeholders: Inform management and department heads about the audit scope, objectives, and schedule. Engage stakeholders early to ensure their cooperation and support.

    5. Take care of logistics and resources: Arrange for logistical needs, like travel and access to facilities. Ensure the audit team has the necessary resources, including documentation, data, and personnel.

    Phase 2: Conducting the audit

    The best way to start an audit is to hold an opening meeting with key stakeholders to explain the audit objectives, scope, and process. This ensures everyone understands their roles and the schedule.

    After that, it’s time for data collection, which can include:

    • Site inspections: Conduct on-site inspections to observe operations, practices, and conditions firsthand. Verify that actual practices align with documented procedures and compliance requirements.

    • Interviews and surveys: Engage with employees and management through interviews and surveys to gather insights and verify information. Ensure a comprehensive understanding of environmental practices and challenges.

    • Document reviews: Examine relevant documents, including permits, reports, training records, and operational procedures. Verify that documentation is up-to-date and compliant with regulations.

    The goal of the process is to identify any instances of non-compliance, inefficiencies, or potential risks. Document all findings, including evidence of compliance and non-compliance. 

    When the audit is completed, you can hold a closing meeting to present preliminary findings, discuss any immediate concerns, and outline the next steps.

    Phase 3: Post-audit activities

    After completing the audit, you must take several critical steps to ensure that the findings lead to meaningful improvements. Here are the key post-audit activities:

    • Audit report preparation: Compile a detailed audit report that includes all findings, evidence, and observations. Clearly outline areas of compliance, non-compliance, and opportunities for improvement.

    • Report distribution: Share your findings with key stakeholders, including management and relevant department heads. Ensure that all parties have access to the report and recommendations.

    • Corrective action plan development: Work with stakeholders to develop an action plan addressing the audit findings. Define specific actions, responsible parties, and timelines for implementing corrective measures and improvements.

    The final step is to implement those corrective actions and verify their effectiveness.

    Streamline environmental auditing with L2L

    The L2L Connected Workforce Platform is designed to improve operational efficiency and streamline manufacturing processes through real-time data collection, analytics, and collaborative tools.

    Here’s how L2L can help reduce administrative work during environmental audits:

    1. Centralized data management: L2L’s platform centralizes all manufacturing data — including environmental documents and records — ensuring quick and easy access to critical information and reports.

    2. Automated scheduling and notifications: You can use L2L to set a recurring schedule for environmental audits and send automatic notifications to relevant stakeholders.

    3. Real-time data collection and reporting: L2L enables real-time data collection during audits, allowing auditors to input findings directly into the system. This facilitates immediate reporting and quick identification of non-compliance issues or inefficiencies.

    4. Customizable audit checklists: The platform allows organizations to create and customize inspection checklists tailored to their specific needs and regulatory requirements.

    5. Collaborative action plans: L2L supports the development of collaborative action plans by allowing multiple stakeholders to contribute to and track the progress of corrective actions. This ensures that improvements are effectively implemented and monitored.

    6. Enhanced compliance tracking: With L2L, organizations can easily track compliance with various environmental regulations and standards. The system provides dashboards and reports that offer a clear overview of compliance status and progress toward sustainability goals.

    7. Integration with other systems: L2L integrates with other enterprise systems, such as ERP and EMS, ensuring seamless data flow and a holistic view of environmental performance.

    Environmental compliance is only a fraction of what L2L can do. Our platform offers the best parts of EAM, CMMS, and MES to create an all-in-one lean manufacturing solution that takes care of your machine, people, and processes.

    To see how L2L can transform your operations, take our Interactive Product Tour or schedule a demo with one of our experts today!