Last reviewed 29 September 2015

September 15 saw the long-awaited publication of the revised ISO 14001 standard for environmental management systems (EMS). Sixteen thousand UK organisations are already certified to ISO 14001 — which is relevant to all industry sectors — and over the next three years they must upgrade their EMS in line with the new standard. Caroline Hand provides a brief overview of ISO 14001, highlighting the changes introduced by the new version.

Certification to ISO 14001 brands a business as environmentally responsible and serves to demonstrate a commitment to reducing environmental impacts and meeting targets on sustainability.

The impact of the changes made to ISO 14001 on working practices in a number of fields cannot be doubted. Senior managers will have to get personally involved in environmental management, and the scope of the systems will broaden to include global issues like resource scarcity as well as the immediate polluting impact of everyday activities.

What is an EMS?

ISO 14001 defines an EMS as “the part of the overall management system that includes:

  • organisational structure

  • planning activities

  • responsibilities

  • practices

  • procedures, and

  • resources

for developing, implementing, achieving, reviewing and maintaining the Environmental Policy.”

Wikipedia puts this in plainer language by saying that “Environmental management system refers to the management of an organisation’s environmental programmes in a comprehensive, systematic, planned and documented manner.

The new ISO 14001 emphasises that an EMS is all about improving environmental performance — for example, by cutting carbon emissions or reducing the generation of hazardous waste — not just improving aspects of management such as record keeping and documentation of procedures.

Benefits of 1SO 14001 certification

Many organisations seek certification because it provides a certain degree of evidence that they are environmentally responsible and committed to sustainability. It may also be a requirement specified by clients or customers as part of supply chain management. However, there are also some immediate and concrete benefits which will flow from a good EMS, such as:

  • closer compliance with legislation

  • financial savings, for example through waste reduction and improved energy efficiency

  • a well trained and environmentally aware workforce.

Overview of the changes

Hitherto, the responsibility for drawing up and implementing the EMS had normally been assigned to a designated “green champion” or specialist environmental manager. The new ISO 14001 places responsibility firmly on the shoulders of senior management, with a new clause stating that they are responsible for ensuring the effectiveness of the EMS. They will be involved in drawing up an environmental policy, communicating it effectively to staff and checking that targets are being achieved.

Environmental management is not to be a “side issue” separate from the main concerns of the organisation: under the new ISO, the EMS is to be integrated into the core organisational programmes. For example, this principle would apply to a workshop which is part of (for example) a university or hospital: although the workshop may have its own EMS, the environmental policy should tie in with the objectives of the main organisation. Compliance with legislation has always been part of an EMS but under the new standard its profile is raised and a new definition of “compliance obligations” introduced.

Also, the new standard encourages organisations to look beyond the immediate impact of their activities (for example, by monitoring emissions to air) and consider a broader range of environmental impacts, including concerns such as climate change, flooding and resource scarcity. Interestingly, ISO 14001 uses the term “risk” to denote positive opportunities as well as negative threats. This fits in well with the recognition of waste as a valuable resource, rather than just something to dispose of safely.

ISO 14001 for beginners

The key elements of the standard, and the way in which an EMS is drawn up and implemented, still follow the same basic principle of “PLAN-DO-CHECK-ACT”, known as the Deming cycle.


The first step is for the organisation is to carry out an environmental review which will identify its impacts on the environment and prioritise those matters of greatest significance. These may include:

  • prevention of chemical pollution

  • management of hazardous waste

  • moving waste “up the hierarchy” by looking for opportunities to reduce, reuse and recycle

  • substituting hazardous reagents, cleaning materials and other such substances with less hazardous ones

  • improving energy efficiency (for example, through ensuring unused equipment is switched off)

  • water consumption.

The register of regulations is an essential part of the EMS. Management should draw up a list of all the regulations and official Codes of Practice which relate to their activities. It is important to keep this up to date, for example by using the Croner-i Legislation Tracker. There have been several important changes to legislation affecting laboratories in recent times, such as:

  • new COMAH Regulations

  • the EU Regulation on the Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) of substances and mixtures

  • changes to the classification of hazardous waste through Environment Agency guidance document WM3

  • ongoing changes to REACH

  • new WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Regulations

  • updated guidance on management of healthcare waste.

The organisation’s environmental policy, drawn up by senior management, is something of a mission statement setting out broad environmental aims and priorities, which will include full compliance with legislation. It is then the task of managers to draw up specific objectives, such as moving waste up the hierarchy, and detailed, quantified targets, such as reducing the amount of hazardous waste generated in the workplace by 20% over the next year.

Careful planning is required in drawing up the EMS. The management programme will include details of how objectives and targets will be met and the timescale for achieving them. Technological options, financial constraints, operational and business requirements, and the views of interested parties should be taken into account. The new ISO 14001 places more emphasis on meeting the requirements of “interested parties” which include regulators, contractors and customers.


The next stage is to put the plans into practice. The roles and responsibilities of personnel tasked with meeting objectives and targets should be clearly defined and documented. In the past, responsibility for the EMS would have been assigned to an individual, but under the new system senior management has much more of a hands-on role.

Managers must carefully document the procedures. For example, the rules for segregating hazardous from non-hazardous waste, and communicate them to staff. In relevant environments, there will be an emphasis on emergency procedures and management of spillages. Procedures for the correct labelling and safe storage of chemicals will also be covered.

ISO highlights the importance of including temporary or seasonal staff. There will be a programme for communicating safety and environmental rules to short—term, temporary or seasonal staff. For example, emphasising that a fume cupboard should never be used as a means of disposing of volatile hazardous substances.

Managers must maintain records of training and keep them up to date. The EMS may require some staff to undergo specific training, for example the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management’s Waste Smart course.


No management system will work without regular monitoring. This will often require the physical monitoring of equipment, for example to ensure that it is properly calibrated. Maintenance and inspection records should be documented. Senior managers have a broader responsibility to make sure that the system is working, procedures are being followed and the targets are being achieved.


If any shortcomings are identified by the checks, managers must take action to correct them and ensure that ongoing progress is made towards the targets. While under the old ISO 14001 the system only required breaches of legislation to be entered in the records, the new standard makes it clear that those breaches must not take place.

Managers will review the overall system and seek to improve it, setting new objectives and targets once the original ones have been achieved. The new ISO emphasises that the purpose of an EMS is to generate real environmental improvement, whether that is expressed as a percentage reduction in hazardous waste, a switch to renewable energy sources or introducing reusable containers. The management system should be continually improving, and so should the environmental performance of the laboratory.


Organisations which are certified to the 2004 ISO 14001 have approximately three years to upgrade to the 2015 version.