EMS audits assuring compliance 'long way off'

16th May 2013


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Third-party audits of environment management systems (EMS) are not capable of providing the level of assurance needed by regulators, say researchers

Many UKAS-accredited certification bodies lack the knowledge and skills to complete audits of firms to the necessary standard to guarantee legal compliance, according to new research backed by the UK’s environment agencies. Introducing such third-party assurance is seen as a way of reducing the number of regulatory inspections carried out.

The study, by sustainability analysts Sniffer, examined the approaches taken by UKAS-accredited certification bodies to assess EMSs and the potential for third-party audits to help support the government’s deregulation agenda, by providing assurance over legal compliance.

However, the researchers concluded: “Many certification bodies and their environmental auditors lack the underpinning environmental knowledge to be able to ensure that the processes in place within an organisation are appropriate and effective.”

The report concludes that the competence of bodies and auditors is generally limited to assessing the presence of procedures, rather than auditing for effectiveness and therefore whether those processes will ensure the organisation is operating within its environmental permit, for example.

Despite all the bodies studied being UKAS accredited, the researchers found significant disparity in their approaches to assessing an EMS and their attitudes towards taking on responsibility for assessing legal compliance.

Certification bodies displaying a proactive and engaged approach provided sufficient evidence of being able to deliver assurance of an organisation’s legal compliance in line with regulators’ expectations, according to the research. Others, however, were “indifferent”.

When evaluating how well EMS audits mirrored regulator inspections for legal compliance, 92% of certification bodies said they believed their audits reflected the regulators conclusions “very well” or “quite well”. When asked the same question, 16% of regulators said third-party audits reflected their results “quite well” and just 1% stated they did so “very well”.

On a more positive note, the research concludes that if regulators, certification bodies and UKAS work together, EMS audits incorporating legal compliance assurance could be developed and delivered in future.

The study outlines 35 recommendations, including that UKAS reviews it internal procedures to ensure that certification bodies are working to high standards and that the focus of EMS audits should shift from processes to outcomes.

It also calls on certification bodies to inform regulators when they discover an auditee is breaching environmental legislation.

The environment agencies, meanwhile, must provide clearer guidance on how firms can meet legal requirements, to help certification bodies consistently assess compliance.

The researchers also conclude that the Environment Agency’s ongoing EMS+ trial should be expanded to enable regulators and certification bodies to undertake joint audits, and that the next iteration of ISO 14001, due to be published in 2015, could play a key role in ensuring legal compliance assurance is the “accepted norm” in EMS audits.

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