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Colin Ward looks at how new updates to ISO 14001:2015 – the environmental management systems (EMS) standard – provide a framework to help civil engineering firms improve their environmental performance.

As environmental compliance and legal regulations constantly change to mirror the climate of the workplace, civil engineering firms have become increasingly aware of their environmental impact. In order to tackle environmental concerns some companies have established their own reactive practices. The problem is that these practices are usually lacking in sustainability and coherent strategy, causing companies to fall short of their environmental goals.

Environmental impact has a telling effect on a company’s performance both in terms of financial performance and regulatory operation. In simple terms, how a civil engineering company performs is often challenged by negative perceptions due to its operations and perceived damage to the environment. Whilst many of these perceptions are incorrect, it is important to keep the general public (and regulatory bodies) onside during project management.

By its very nature the design, construction and maintenance within naturally built environments will have an impact on the landscape, particularly when constructing roads, bridges, canals and dams. ISO 14001 – the world’s most recognised environmental management systems standard – provides a solution to minimise and control this impact. It goes beyond simply meeting environmental compliance through demonstrating a commitment to maintaining a framework for sustainable development. Released in September, the updated standard, ISO 14001:2015, will help civil engineering companies implement an EMS to outline how their projects can avoid or mitigate their impact on the environment in order to improve environmental performance.

Recent studies on civil engineering management have found that operating separate management systems can lead to a redundancy of tasks and information collection. However, the new ISO 14001:2015 standard incorporates a high-level structure, the Annex SL framework, which contains common requirements, terms and definitions. This structure acts as a template to ensure that all future and revised management systems standards (MSS) are aligned so that they are easier to integrate and maintain.

Under the new ‘context’ clause, civil engineering firms will need to determine their context to understand what they are about, what they do and what is expected from them – this means assessing internal cultures, principles and strategic directions. They also need to determine the external social, economic and environmental factors that may affect their business. Together these internal and external factors form the basic building blocks for developing the scope of the company’s EMS.

ISO 14001:2015 also introduces risk-based thinking as an essential component of planning.  For example, if a construction company discovers that an external factor e.g. a natural habitat or waterway is close to their jobsite, that company must then consider what could go wrong e.g. air, soil, water and/or noise pollution. From this evaluation the company can then determine internal risks resulting from an environmental impact caused by them and take action to mitigate these risks.

Leadership is critically important in an engineering context and a vital skill for developing an effective EMS. In previous MSS those in senior positions delegated responsibility to junior or middle managers but with ISO 14001:2015, top management is now held accountable and must demonstrate active involvement across their EMS.

At SGS we believe the benefits of ISO 14001:2015 are hard to ignore; implementing an EMS increases efficiency, minimises waste, energy and resource usage reducing costs, improves occupational health, public image and relations with regulators, lowers insurance costs and avoids litigation. Implementing ISO 14001:2015 also gives companies competitive advantage and sets an environmental benchmark. It distinguishes them from their counterparts, enhancing their credibility. 

There should be a symbiotic relationship between human construction and the environment, one where companies feel confident in their ability to manage ecological operations and work in tandem with the needs of their natural surroundings. So, can civil engineering companies continue to shape the forces of nature in a sustainable manner without ISO 14001:2015? Through implementing an environmental management strategy into every core business process and at every level of management, firms will be up-to-date with environmental issues, aware of potential risks to both their business and the environment. They will then have the necessary systems in place to tackle these risks effectively and improve their environmental responsibility. In the eyes of the general public and regulatory bodies this will be a major step forward in proving the operational integrity of civil engineering companies.

Colin Ward is UK Product Manager for ISO 14001 at SGS who can offer a variety of solutions during the transition process.

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