It has been over seven years since we first began helping a medium sized automotive equipment manufacturer in the midwest implement a company wide ISO 14001 EMS. They were getting pressure from their customers to prove they were good environmental performers and an ISO 14001 certificate was the best solution. We helped them with environmental aspects, setting up the EMS and identifying regulatory compliance requirements. As we were completing the project we performed a round of internal audits to check that each facility was complying with the applicable legal requirements.
The Audit Finding
One of the findings of our compliance audit was that at one location, the company was operating unpermitted production painting equipment. The audit team could find no records of correspondence with the State permitting authority about this new equipment. It had been commissioned sometime after an initial Title V permit application had been prepared for the facility. The paint operation was an important part of the manufacturing process and it was not possible to simply shut the process down. Doing so would have resulted in delayed shipment of product and dissatisfied customers.
Although the discovery of this potential noncompliance was uncomfortable news for the organization, at least they now had a better picture of the potential risks they were facing. They examined the process closely and decided that it was time to upgrade. They worked it out with the state permitting authority to replace the old system with a new more efficient paint system.
Over the last several years we have continued to perform periodic EH&S compliance, ISO 14001, and OHSAS 18001 internal audits to support their continued certification to these standards.. During a recent compliance audit at one of the facilities we were delighted to see a new process being installed. It means the company continues to grow but, from an auditors perspective, the stack ducting through the roof becomes a great opportunity to check the EMS effectiveness to control noncompliance risk. As we walked by the new process I could see the auditee cracking a half smile as I asked a few questions about the new equipment and construction underway. He knew where this audit was going.
The audit was actually a combined one-day environmental and OSHA compliance audit so we had a lot of ground to cover in 8 hours. When the audit schedule called for review of compliance with state air emission permits, I asked what they knew about the potential emission from the new process. The audtee said “the process had the potential to emit a hazardous air pollutant at levels requiring permitting before installation of the equipment”. The auditee then produced the construction permit they had been issued by the state? The EMS had worked to help the organization identify the need to obtain a permit, well in advance of beginning construction on the new process.
Discovery of unpermitted emission sources during internal and compliance audits is not uncommon for us even today. Helping organizations identify and manage risks of noncompliance in the short term provides some satisfaction in our work. But having the opportunity to see the results of an effective EMS that we helped implement and, how that EMS has helped manage risks long term, is particularly gratifying.
Skepticism of the benefits of ISO 14001 will continue to linger especially with the uniformed. However, organizations interested in managing environmental risk and becoming more sustainable need to understand how the audit processes, embedded in ISO 14001, can be used to support an organizations sustainability efforts, promote successful outcomes and provide confidence by other stakeholder that environmentally, things are as they should be.