The environmental audit is the activity carried out, periodically, by an organization to evaluate the performance of its management for the care of the environment and, in the case of being obliged to comply with a standard, a law or a standard, verify compliance with those requirements.
Other activities, with similar purposes and which are also very important for the success of management such as inspections and reviews, are often confused or taken as an environmental audit, without being so.
The differences between them go beyond the semantic. In the case of the audit, for example, it must be carried out by a qualified, trained and accredited professional, accepting the generally accepted best practices for that task, among other characteristics that define this method of evaluation and verification.
What are the features and what is the best way to conduct an environmental audit?
Environmental Audit – What Is It?
The goal of environmental management is to eliminate or mitigate the negative impact of an organization’s actions on the environment. In parallel, the management aims to comply with the legislation, with the agreements signed with the community, with the objectives that the organization itself has set itself and with the standards that are applicable to it, or that by autonomous decision the organization has implemented.
The implementation of a Management System, processes or the publication of a policy do not guarantee that everything is going well, that obligations are being met, standards and, in the case of organizations that have adopted the ISO 14001 standard, that the System is continuously improving.
Neither do inspections or reviews. While these tools provide important assessment elements, it is the environmental audit that provides solid evidence that things are going well, that obligations are being met and that the trend is towards improvement.
What Should An Environmental Audit Look Like?
Audits are carried out in different areas, such as financial, accounting, quality, information security or occupational health and safety, to mention some of the best known.
To undertake each of these audits, it is necessary to have expert professionals in the audited area, but also in the management standard adopted and, of course, in the generally accepted audit techniques.
In addition to a qualified auditor, audits must meet certain essential features:
- Ability to obtain solid evidence of compliance with the requirements of a standard, law, norm or agreement.
- Systematic, which implies that its realization obeys a previous task of methodical planning, in which resources, procedures, schedules, etc. converge.
- Periodic, obeying what is defined in a calendar of audits for each semester or year.
- With clear objectives defined in advance. Some audits focus on detecting a previously identified problem, even in a previous audit. Others aim to verify the effectiveness of corrective actions implemented.
- Documented, including the records and notes taken by the auditor, how the evidence was obtained, the findings and, of course, the final reports to Senior Management.
- Traceability, to check the evolution from one audit to the next, which is especially important in an environmental audit, when management is based on ISO 14001, to demonstrate continuous improvement.
How To Conduct An Environmental Audit?
There are many guidelines for conducting audits in general. In many areas, this type of task is carried out routinely, because a significant number of them have already been carried out.
The environmental audit, in particular, is carried out in three stages, each of which develops a series of activities and tasks.
1. Pre-audit stage
At this stage, the auditor or the team of auditors is chosen depending on the complexity of the task and the organization, and the audit model to follow is chosen, which can be face-to-face, remote or a combination of both. Once the auditor or team has been chosen, we proceed to:
- Design an audit plan
- According to the objectives, which can also be set here, prepare a list of the people to be interviewed and the documents to be requested, among which may be permits, records, reports, results of previous audits or reports of corrective actions implemented, among others.
- Design questionnaires according to the objectives.
- Request resources, such as mobile devices, stationery, Human Resources, facilities, sampling equipment, etc.
2. Field audit stage
In this phase, a good auditor will execute the plan, but will also be attentive to any deviations that he perceives and that deserve an annotation in his reports. It is a combination of auditing and inspection, which is very useful in this instance. In addition, these steps are performed:
- Hold an opening meeting in which the procedure and basic rules of the activity are explained.
- Communicate audit objectives.
- Conduct interviews and evidence collection as planned.
- Request related documents, which, in addition to those already mentioned, may include policies, evidence of training, procedures manuals, responses to complaints…
- Perform a record check to check the authenticity, consistency and update status of the documents received.
- Take samples of air, water or other substances, where appropriate.
- Hold a closing meeting, presenting a first report on problems identified and actions taken during the audit.
3. Post-audit stage
With the closing meeting, the audit does not end. It moves to the phase in which the auditors write the final reports for Senior Management, which detail the problems and findings found, propose corrective actions to solve them, but also identify opportunities for improvement and highlight the positive aspects. Basically, right now:
- Final reports are prepared and communicated to Senior Management.
- Reports are communicated, highlighting the conclusions and critical points of greatest concern.
- The actions that are proposed and suggested to solve the problems are listed.
Audits, supported by technology, offer much stronger and more effective results. Organizations that have digitized and automated their Environmental Management Systems will have greater opportunities to benefit from an environmental audit. Digital Transformation offers these opportunities and investments in technology, as well as education and training, will result in effective, efficient, transparent and productive management.