A Guide to Environmental Audits & Inspections
This article focuses on the key elements of environmental audits & inspections and the benefits these processes have on your operations.
For management plans and systems to be effective, they must be integrated into your operations. The purpose of environmental audits and inspections is to assess your management systems to determine if they are effectively managing risks to the environment, as well as identify opportunities for improvement. Evaluation of the implementation of your management processes leads to reduced risks and continuous improvement.
Environmental audit meaning defined
An environmental audit is a systematic, independent and documented process for determining whether management systems and processes effectively address specific risks and are being implemented in accordance with internal and external requirements.
The objective of an environmental audit is to assess operations to identify strengths and weaknesses, determine effectiveness and compliance, and measure progress. This may be in relation to:
- Compliance with relevant statutory and best practice requirements
- Implementation of policies, standards and procedures
- Management control of environmental practices
- Staff awareness of risks and controls
- Maintaining accreditation or other external stakeholder requirements
- Exploring improvement opportunities
An environmental audit should provide a fair and true reflection of the management system by obtaining audit evidence and evaluating it objectively against audit criteria.
How are environmental audits important to your operations?
Environmental auditing has a critical role to play in ensuring that organisations fulfil their commitments to environmental management and performance. Audits can provide key information to management on areas of risk, and progress towards strategic objectives and targets.
Audits enable management to understand exactly what is happening within the organisation and to check the operation (or otherwise) of plans, systems and procedures. Undertaking regular environmental audits is a proactive measure to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements and stakeholder expectations. Indeed, evidence suggests that environmental audits have a valuable role to play, encouraging systematic incorporation of environmental perspectives into many aspects of overall operations, helping to trigger new awareness and priorities in policies and practices.
Environmental auditing can help reveal the likely weaknesses of an organisation’s processes, therefore reducing the risk of unexpected events. A properly prepared and conducted environmental audit has great benefits and adds value to an organisation that is committed to act on the results.
Environmental compliance means conforming with relevant environmental laws, regulations, standards and other requirements. The importance of being environmentally compliant isn’t just about being green, it is essential to ensuring the success of your operations by limiting your exposure to penalties and public scrutiny as well as identifying opportunities for improvement.
An environmental audit can be used to investigate the compliance status your operations and/or the extent of your environmental liability. This process is a systematic evaluation focusing on current operations and management procedures and processes. Assurance through auditing verification and reporting programs can be used to identify gaps and limitations as well as allocate ownership and accountability to the process of implementing environmental compliance for your operations.
Environmental Audits vs Inspections
An environmental audit evaluates the compliance of management systems and practices within an organisation with regulations, internal policies or other compliance drivers. While an environmental inspection looks for risks and implementation of controls for a specific operation.
Given that the goal of an environmental audit is to assess overall compliance of processes, they are typically performed less frequently than inspections. Audits are typically conducted by a third-party to the site being audited. This could be an auditor from another company site or an auditor completely external to the company.
Inspections are typically the reoccurring completion of checklists by operational personnel, such as Site Managers or Environmental Advisors. Inspections can be thought of as compliance tasks with checklists. For example, an inspection can be used to determine if specific controls are being implemented effectively.
Types of Environmental Audits
In general, there are three types of environmental audits:
System audits: these audits check that your system is compliant with standards or guidelines that your system has been developed in accordance with such as ISO 14001: Environmental Management Systems. These audits check that all policies, procedures and other required documented information is available and up to date.
Operational audits: these audits check if you are doing what you say you are doing. Your system audits should confirm that the correct procedures have been developed, however these operational audits confirm you are actually implementing them.
Compliance audits: Sometimes called legal audits. These audits should check that you are complying with all the legislation and other requirements that are applicable to your operations. They should cover all of your activities, products and services and all your legal requirements.
Use for Environmental Inspections
An inspection looks for compliance with controls as well as any new or changed risks and poor practices. An environmental inspection could be used to:
- Observe work practices to identify the effectiveness of controls
- Examine whether construction or operations present any environmental risks
- Check whether controls and other management practices are effective
5 Step Environmental Audit Process
The main steps of an environmental audit are detailed below.
Step 1: Plan the Audit
The first step in the environmental audit is to establish and document the scope and terms of reference. The scope could include one or more sites or specific operations to be audited. While the terms of reference is the reason for the audit such as ISO 14001 certification or compliance with specific legislation requirements.
Step 2: Prepare for the Audit
An environmental audit guidance tool must be prepared for each audit activity. The audit guidance tool may be in the format of a checklist, list of interview questions, marked-up procedures, flow charts or mind maps.
An audit plan should also be developed. The audit plan is used to schedule activities and meetings with auditees within each audit, including the opening meeting and interviews.
Step 3: Conduct the Audit
Prior to conducting the audit, all relevant personnel in the audit team should meet to discuss the scope of the audit, proposed audit agenda, audit objectives, any personnel that need to be contacted or interviewed, and a tentative time to hold the closing meeting.
Step 4: Develop an Audit Report or Action Plan
The environmental audit team needs to prepare a report based on all the objective evidence that is collected during the audit. The audit report should be completed based on agreed content in the closing meeting.
Step 5: Audit Follow-Up
Following the completion of the audit, actions to close out any non-conformances or suggested improvements should be implemented and tracked. This can be done separately or as part of the audit report.
Our 5 Tips for Preparing for an Environmental Audit
There are many benefits of undertaking and participating in environmental audits. This includes identifying and preventing risks, determining which processes are working well, and looking for opportunities for improvement.
These are our five tips for getting the most out of your environmental audit:
1. Understand what is being audited. It is your licence or approval requirements? Or a particular aspect of your environmental management system or operations? Or recertification of your management system? If you are unclear, then clarify with the auditor so that you can be prepared for the audit.
2. Know the audit schedule. Otherwise, ask the auditor for the schedule so again you can be prepared.
3. Make sure worksites are clean and tidy. As an auditor walking into a tidy and well-maintained work area, you are instantly impressed and this starts the audit off on the right foot.
4. Be cooperative. An environmental auditor is there to help you. They are a fresh pair of eyes to notice something that you have overlooked and provide suggestions to improve management processes. Use this to your advantage by assisting to determine suitable solutions to improve your operations.
5. Closeout any non-conformances or improvements as soon as possible. This will provide the greatest benefit to your operations as well as preventing lingering items on your To-Do list.
How Can We Help?
If your project is in need of an environmental audit & inspection, our team are here to help. With vast experience in a wide range of industries, we are equipped to support your project needs. Contact us with your request.