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ISO 14001 Aspects and Impacts Explained

One of the most common problems I see with people managing ISO 14001 is their understanding of what an aspect is and what an impact is. People get awfully confused between them. To help, we have this guest blog to explain the difference between an aspect and an impact.

What is an Aspect? An aspect is an element of an organisation's activities or products or services that can interact with the environment. That's the official definition that's listed in the ISO 14001 standard. What that means is that you need to look at your activities, your products, and your services, and look at some elements that you have that may impact on the environment, we'll have a look at some examples very soon.

What is an Impact? And secondly, an impact is any change to the environment whether adverse or beneficial, that is wholly or partly resulting from your organisation's environmental aspects. So, from your aspects, which of those will adversely or beneficially change the environment? For ISO 14001 certification, you need to have a clear definition of what an aspect is, and what an impact is, because these are central to your ISO 14001 certification.

Example of an Aspect and Impact Here's an example: - The activity, or the product, or the service, in this case, it's an activity which may be a boiler. Aspect; there's a range of aspects,

  • it consumes water,

  • it consumes fuel,

  • and it emits something into the air so there's some air emission,

    • could be steam,

    • could be exhaust fumes, whatever it is.

That aspect, water consumption, what impact does that have on the environment? Obviously, if it's consuming water, it's naturally a depletion of some sort of resource, a natural resource being depleted. Fuel consumption much the same, you're using up fuel, maybe in this case, oil, and then that is a natural resource depletion. So that's the impact,

  • the aspect is the fuel consumption,

  • and then the impact is some sort of depletion.

And for air emission, the aspect there has an impact on the environment, which is a discharged air, maybe air pollution. You have to clearly understand, there's three things happening,

  1. there's your activity, or your product or service.

  2. There are certain aspects that are involved with those, and then

  3. what impact do those aspects have on the environment.

There's a process you go through to identifying all your aspects and your impacts.

Step 1: Identifying an Aspect Let's have a look at identifying aspects. What you do is, you select an activity or a product or the service and then you identify as many environmental aspects as you possibly can. You then identify any potential positive or negative impacts that aspect has. You define your aspects then you look at the impacts that it does here. That's what you have to do at step one. What are these aspects actually look like? You saw three before to do with that boiler, but what you're looking for is how these aspects impact on the environment. An aspect could be an emission to air through, say steam or smoke or even ozone, for a client of ours they use emission of ozone as part of a process for curing ink. There's an emission maybe to water so that's either surface water or groundwater where you're using water maybe in a factory and then there's maybe some chemicals or something like that that could potentially get into the water table. The most common one is solid waste disposal and land contamination. When you're putting waste material into bins, then there's some solid waste disposal and then that would end up in a land tip or land dump and may potentially contaminate the land. There's raw material and natural resource use, it's very common,

  • energy,

  • water,

  • chemicals,

  • lumber,

  • electricity consumption,

  • fuel consumption,

anything like that chemical consumption, those are all aspects you need to look like in your organisation.

Then there's all local environmental or community issues, maybe your factory or your business has a lot of noise that could be damage the environment or upset the local community. Odours and smells, using your land, maybe the appearance, in some cases you've painted the building orange that may upset the community.

That's what aspects look like, what don't they look like?

What aspects are not? Improving air quality is not an aspect that's an objective. You need to be very clear what an aspect actually is.

Vehicle maintenance, I've seen that often as being an aspect, it's not actually an aspect that's actually an activity, vehicle maintenance is an activity. You need to look at the aspects that's associated with that, during the maintenance, there could be an oil change, so there could be a discharge of that oil, into water or into air or into a waste stream somewhere. That's the aspect not vehicle maintenance. Water pollution, that's another common one, people think this is an aspect, but actually that's an impact, polluting the water or streams or whatever it is that you've got there. That's actually an impact. So those things are not aspects. So where do you find these aspects? How do you actually discover them? There are various processes you can go through, you can look up process flow diagram, so you can look through your manuals and see what processes you've got and the flows that they go through and have a look and try and spot where those aspects are. You could interview your staff, your supervisors, your managers, and they will be able to advise you of the aspects that they are having to deal with. Certainly, hazardous material inventories is a great source for aspects. Waste records, when you're recycling, hazardous waste or disposing of hazardous waste, there'll be waste records, so you may want to capture those, as well they’re an easy way of finding these aspects.

Maybe some records from your emergency planning or accident reports or emergency incidents, you'll be able to gain some records there and understand what aspects you've got in your organisation. Then you maybe, look up some water and energy consumption records, look at your energy bill, your water bill, your electricity bill, your oil and gas bill. That's step one, identifying your aspects.

Step 2: Determine Significant Aspects You have to then go through a process to determine which ones are significant aspects, because those aspects could run to a big long list of hundreds. You actually want to go through some sort of rating system. and determine which ones are significant based on some sort of criteria that you alone determined, because you only really want to be dealing with significant aspects. Once you've got your significant aspects, you'll be able to see those which are based on the significant impacts they have on the environment. A significant aspect is one that has or can have a significant impact on the environment. Once again, as I say, come up with some sort of criteria for a significance rating in a cut off value. Anything above a certain number or a certain range, then that becomes significant. If you've got 100 aspects, you may just want to choose the top 20 or the top 10 depending on what you want to achieve.

From that cut off value, then you can make some sort of subjective assessment based on Yes / No answers because you can have a cut off value that may give you the top 10 or the top 20, you've got to be very subjective with it.

Why do we want to use significant aspects and significant impact? Well, ISO 14001 uses significant aspects and significant impacts as a basis for them developing your objectives and preparing programs for managing those significant aspects and those significant impacts.

The whole of your 14001 program revolves around aspects and revolves around you working out which one are significant aspects. Once you've worked out those significant aspects, the EMS needs to address that aspect. Your environmental management system must address your significant aspect based on the criteria that you set on the previous screen, because once you've set your significant aspect, you then define and put in objectives to maybe reduce that aspect and reduce the significance of the impact that that has on the environment.

Aspects and Impacts Understanding When you're doing this process, you want to make sure that you're comprehensive, you want to cover off the whole of your organisation, or the scope of your organisation. You don't want to leave bits out; you want to be pretty comprehensive and cover off the whole of the scope of the organisation you're having to deal with. Never prejudge, never say that something is significant unless you've gone through a formal criteria process of doing that, it's easy to sort by activity, project or service. You saw before with the boiler, and it had those three aspects. Those three aspects have been sorted underneath that boiler so it's nice and clear, it's easy to then, identify those impacts.

The aspect is determined to be significant by the impact that that has on the environment. Significant really is determined by that environmental impact. So, determine the environmental impact, the significance of that to determine the aspect significant. Any aspects that you don't consider to be significant, you don't have to carry those through the system, you can just put them to one side and not worry about them. It's the significant ones that you have to worry about. Then significant aspects affect and drive all parts of your system,

  • from your objectives,

  • through your planning,

  • through your monitoring and measuring,

  • non-conformances,

through the whole system, all of that is driven by your significant aspect. If you could must control something, then it must be significant. Don't worry about controlling stuff that isn't significant, only control those things that are significant. That's a summary of aspects and impacts.

Benefits of ISO 14001 I just want to quickly just run through the benefits of ISO 14001. This comes straight out of the website. 14001 is a great tool for demonstrating compliance with all of your statutory and regulatory, requirements. It helps increase leadership involvement and engagement of your employees and in your environmental systems. It will improve your reputation and confidence of any stakeholders in your business, that's customers or the board or employees. It helps encourage environmental issues to be built into your business management systems. It's a great way of being competitive and having some financial advantage through improving your efficiencies and reducing your costs, so there's a cost benefit relationship here. And it encourages better environmental performance by suppliers by integrating them into your business systems, so hopefully you can improve the performance of your suppliers by building environmental monitoring into the system. The other key requirement for 14001, it's really a prevention standard rather than a correction standard. You want to manage how the business interacts with the environment, not what the business has done to the environment. You want to be proactive and be preventive, how is the business interacting with the environment rather than what it actually does to the environment. The EMS is built around identifying prioritising, there's that prioritising we talked about before for the aspects, controlling and improving those elements of your business that interact with the environment. That's the philosophy of prevention rather than correction.

Would you like to know more. Consider our training blog on ISO 14001

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