Facilities seeking a bigger ROI on their EHS audits are adding management systems conformance assessments, EHS business operations reviews, energy conservation measures studies and pollution prevention assessments to the scope of a traditional compliance audit.

While assessing business and operational aspects of a facility during an EHS audit takes more time and is more expensive than applying a traditional compliance-only audit approach, it is more efficient than conducting separate business operations, MS assessments and operations/process reviews. When done together, the facility can gain a better understanding of the overall EHS picture in terms of compliance, management systems, risk and overall business performance. Moreover, most facilities that have taken the more comprehensive approach have found a far greater ROI when compared to the individual program assessment approach, and in many cases the process at least pays for itself in cost avoidance, cost savings, process efficiencies, etc.

Demonstrating Successful Outcomes

What gets measured gets done. Accordingly, findings and recommendations included in the final report must be clearly delineated, prioritized and quantified based on an objective scoring system that is understood by all key stakeholders. The criteria used to score findings vary from facility to facility and depend heavily on the goals of the audit or assessment, but prioritization and quantification is critical to making real progress.
In general, each type of audit sets priorities based on the goals and objectives of that type of assessment. For example:

Compliance audits prioritize findings if they can lead to big fines, injuries, are repeat offenses or are ubiquitous and easily fixed.

EHSMS assessments prioritize findings if there are significant management systems gaps, lack of programs, poor communication or lack of training.

Business operations reviews prioritize findings where there is waste, inefficiency, redundancy or lack of controls.

Conservation studies and pollution prevention assessments prioritize findings where a low- or no-cost change will result in meaningful cost savings, or the ROI of a recommended capital or process change exceeds corporate investment guidelines.

There always will be subjectivity when it comes to prioritizing areas for improvement found in each of these types of audits. However, the criteria for scoring can and should be based on agreed-upon objective criteria prior to the commencement of the audit or assessment. If this is done well, then after-the-fact discussions between the auditor and auditee over whether a finding should be a 4 or 5, or high or medium, can be limited to application of the scoring criteria.

Changing regulations, enforcement priorities and use of emerging technologies always will put pressure on EHS departments that are responsible for managing compliance. In addition, meeting economic and social demands to ensure operations are efficient, cost effective and green also will become more important drivers as rules are developed to address new environmental and social justice challenges. In a fiercely competitive global economy, owners and shareholders demand better performance in all aspects of operations. Without a clear understanding of what these challenges are today and are likely to be in the future, a company's ability to do strategic EHS planning is severely impaired.

The best way to understand all the EHS aspects of a facility, company or system is through a well-designed EHS audit that assesses compliance, MS conformance, business operations, energy use and conservation. When done effectively, all stakeholders will come away with a meaningful idea of where their facility is succeeding and what needs to be improved. In addition to answering crucial big picture questions, a successful audit pays for itself in immediate and long-term benefits.

Adam Steinman serves as the national practice leader for EH&S Auditing and Compliance at Woodard & Curran.  He is trained as an environmental lawyer and environmental scientist.