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Environmental Management in Small Laboratories

Like any other important business activity in a small lab, environmental issues must be carefully managed. For example, important business activities occurring in small labs address quality, finance, human resources, or safety and have appropriate ma

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Environmental Management Systems

Like any other important business activity in a small lab, environmental issues must be carefully managed. For example, important business activities occurring in small labs address quality, finance, human resources, or safety – and have appropriate management systems.

What is an EMS?

The collection of activities undertaken to ensure that environmental issues are managed is called an environmental management system ( EMS). An EMS is essential to:

  • Consistently comply with environmental laws and regulations;
  • Improve overall environmental performance;
  • Address environmental liability from current or past practices;
  • Maximize the investment, no matter how small, in environmental affairs;
  • Integrate environmental objectives into overall business objectives;
  • Provide for an environmentally safe workplace.

Interest in environmental protection is growing steadily so small labs, like other organizations, may be increasingly challenged to demonstrate commitment to the environment. Implementing an EMS can help in a number of ways.

Why is an EMS Important?

First, an EMS makes good business sense. By identifying the causes of environmental problems, and then eliminating them, an EMS can help save money. The following questions demonstrate the point:

  • Is it better to conduct chemical analyses right the first time or perform a lot of re-work later?
  • Is it cheaper to prevent a spill in the first place or clean it up afterwards?
  • Is it more cost-effective to prevent pollution or to manage it after it has been generated?

Second, an EMS can be an investment in the long-term viability of a small lab. An EMS helps the organization become more focused and, therefore, more effective in achieving environmental goals. This, typically, will result in higher staff job satisfaction and productivity. It also will help attract and retain new customers. More and more often, it is becoming necessary to prove a lab has an EMS to satisfy contract or other business terms.

EMS Elements

The following are typically considered elements of an effective EMS.

Policy

  • Develop an Environmental Policy that describes the lab organization’s commitment to the environment.
  • Use this policy as a framework for planning and implementation.

Planning

  • Formulate objectives in line with the policy.
  • Plan actions to achieve objectives.
  • Ensure plan is in compliance with Federal, state, tribal and local regulations.

Implementation

  • Establish roles and responsibilities and provide resources.
  • Provide training to employees on their environmental responsibilities.
  • Institute processes for communicating both internal and external environmental management issues.
  • Develop written procedures and policies and ensure that documentation is maintained.
  • Identify potential emergencies and develop procedures for prevention and response.

Quality Assurance and Control

  • Monitor key activities and track performance.
  • Identify and correct problems.
  • Keep adequate records of EMS performance.
  • Conduct periodic environmental management system audits to verify that the EMS is operating as intended.

Management Review

  • Periodically review the EMS to evaluate overall program effectiveness and institute improvements where needed.
  • Annually review objectives to determine whether the lab is meeting them. Set new targets as needed.

Chances are that most small labs have already committed to a quality or safety program. In fact, much of what is needed in many small labs may already be in place. In these cases, it is useful to think of an EMS as a value-added component to these existing programs.

When first establishing an EMS, the process can seem overwhelming. Because the EMS process encourages continual improvement, however, it doesn’t matter how complete an EMS is, or isn’t. It is important to get started now.

Small labs have some advantages over larger labs for establishing an EMS. For example, lines of communication are generally shorter, organizational structures are less complex, people perform multiple functions, and access to management is simpler. Also, time and resources are more scarce. This means management and staff are often motivated to spend time and resources wisely. An EMS helps promote and sustain such efficiency.

EMS Standards and Regulations

Many lab organizations have already committed to quality certifications such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Total Quality Management Standard, ISO 9000. A number of organizations and countries have developed similar “quality” standards devoted to EMS. One such standard is ISO 14001. A lab can review its organization against a standard such as ISO 14001 to identify gaps and opportunities for improvement in its EMS. If the lab meets all the required elements of the standard, the lab can “self-declare” conformance. Alternatively, the lab can go through a third-party “registration” process. Some customers may require a third party review. Regardless of whether the lab pursues formal registration or self-declares, the assessment and adjustment of the lab’s operations using a standard such as ISO 14001 is likely to improve lab environmental management.

ISO 14001 and other EMS standards should not be confused with lab certification and accreditation programs that demonstrate compliance with industry or government process or sample analysis protocols. Examples of these accreditations include EPA's National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (NELAP) and the National Institutes of Standards and Testing (NIST) accreditation process for asbestos analysis. A properly designed EMS will consider conformance with such accreditation programs as a system objective but will go beyond the lab analysis process to consider all environmental aspects of the lab.