How to Prepare for an ISO 14001 Audit
By Jodi Drew, Environmental Engineer, ITU AbsorbTech
Regular audits are an integral part of any ISO standard, including ISO 14001. However, audits can be daunting if you are unprepared. But with some proper preparation and time, you can successfully complete an audit and continuously improve your environmental management system.
This article reviews what to expect during an audit and how to prepare. The last section highlights some do’s and don’ts during the audit.
Let’s get started.
What is ISO
ISO stands for the International Organization for Standardization and is an independent, non-governmental international organization. According to the ISO website:
ISO 14001:2015 specifies the requirements for an environmental management system that an organization can use to enhance its environmental performance. ISO 14001:2015 is intended for use by an organization seeking to manage its environmental responsibilities in a systematic manner that contributes to the environmental pillar of sustainability.
ISO audits – frequency
Regular internal and external audits are an integral part of any ISO standard, including ISO 14001.
Plan your audits at regular intervals. There is no set frequency for conducting internal audits, but you should have them on a regular schedule. For example, if you are newer to the process or your systems are complex, you may want to schedule them at more frequent intervals. Most third-party audits are annual, but you can plan them differently.
It can be helpful to choose an auditor who is familiar with your industry. Don’t be afraid to change auditors, especially if you don’t click. It is a good practice to change auditors after several years to get fresh eyes and a new outlook. It may seem counterintuitive to break from what has been working, but this is an advantage in a continual improvement system.
ISO audits – what to expect
Expect the auditors to ask for paperwork. They may do this in advance of the audit to help prepare and familiarize themselves with your business and facility. Your manual and policies are often requested. During the audit, they will ask for process instructions and support documentation of anything related to your recordkeeping or regulatory obligations. Don’t worry; they won’t ask for everything, but they could request anything in the scope of your system. Most often, they will review documents and return them to you, as they generally don’t want to carry all that paper around.
You will know your time commitment in advance. The amount of time varies by the size of the facility. Auditors will provide a schedule to let you know whom to have available and at what time. Additionally, auditors are flexible and understand that last-minute changes may be necessary.
It would be best if you always assigned someone as an escort to your auditor. As with any visitor, you want to ensure their safety, help them find what they are looking for, and answer questions.
Auditors will spend most of their time with the ISO team and managers. However, they may also talk to employees in covered areas and contractors.
Some registrars are conducting remote audits via zoom, teams, or similar systems. It is a good idea to test your technology before the start of the audit. Having a handheld (phone or tablet) device may be better than a laptop during facility tours.
Checklist: How to prepare for an audit
There’s no right or wrong way to prepare for an audit, but being prepared is essential. Here’s a general list of what to review when preparing for an external audit.
Review your most recent internal audit report
- Be sure you have addressed all findings
- Read the whole report again and look for hidden gems – insights or other suggested changes and improvements
Review the most recent external audit
- Be sure you have addressed all findings with small corrections or appropriate Corrective Actions
- Be prepared to show how you addressed the findings.
Review your Corrective and Preventive Action system(s)
- Do you have Root Cause Analysis where needed?
- Are the actions timely
- Do the actions address the identified root cause
- Are the corrections sustainable
- Are there corrections that will prevent this same problem from happening again
- How was this problem and correction communicated throughout the organization
- Include how you know the fix was effective
Review your plans, programs, or projects to ensure they contribute to meeting goals and objectives
- Do they have measurable targets
- Do they identify who is responsible
- Do they specify a time frame for completion
- Are they up to date
- Do they explain why a target was not met or was changed
- Is the measurable target environmentally connected
Can you show revision dates and what changed on all controlled documents
- Can be paper or electronic
- Auditors ask for this all the time
Give a refresher to all employees in areas covered by the scope.
- How their job impacts the environment – what would happen if they didn’t follow documented procedures
Take a walk through the area in the scope
Review Postings (charts, KPIs, policies, EMS team members, emergency information) to make sure they are current and controlled as needed. Vendors are notorious for slapping up a reference picture or bullet list that is not controlled. A controlled document must be published within the system’s guidelines; revised as needed; made available to those who use it; and retired, obsoleted, or deleted as needed.
- Look for copies of training materials and work instructions – make sure they are current.
- Remove anything old (previous versions no longer in use)
- Labels on equipment and tanks should match documentation and be detailed in naming.
- Look at logs and records.
- Are all blanks filled in
- Were there actions taken when a recorded reading is out of tolerance
- Is there manager oversight or review when indicated
Check that you are following “do what you say and say what you do.”
- Don’t make statements that are unrealistic to follow-through on
- If you say that you are going to do something – do it. For example, if documentation states every 23 days, do it every 23 days.
Important do’s and don’ts for during an audit
Having third-party auditors on-site can be daunting. Keep these tips in mind when auditors are in your facility.
First, it’s okay to say, “I’m not sure. I’ll look it up and get back to you.” It’s also OK to disagree with an auditor. Explain your reasoning and show objective evidence if you have it.
Don’t be hard on yourself if you’ve missed something that the auditors identify. Third-party auditors are supposed to be adding value to your program. Use their knowledge and expertise to enhance your program even more.
During an audit meeting, you may sit in silence while the auditor reads a document for what seems like an eternity. Use this time to form your questions and resist the urge to fill the void.
Always be prepared with electronic or paper copies of important documents listed on the audit schedule. Be on time for meetings and wrap-ups, and always escort the auditor. Don’t let them wander your facility alone.
With some proper preparation and time, you can successfully complete an audit and continuously improve your environmental management system.
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