ISO mergermania

Combined auditing of quality and environmental management systems is already happening. A quality/environmental management system guideline could be in the International Standards Organizations' (ISO) future. Could safety issues be easily added to the existing combined audits? Could we all benefit from an ISO safety management system guideline? Could industry and society benefit both at the bottom line and in quality of life?

Combining concepts
Organizations around the world seem to believe so, because their systems are already integrating the concepts involved in environmental awareness, safety and quality as they are linked to their activities, products and services. The truth is that because the concepts often merge in our lives without us even noticing it, we will not stop to think or label our day to day actions. That is what is making integrated systems so appealing.

Organizations are already implementing management systems that follow their sui generis version of the combination of ISO 9000 (total quality) and ISO 14000 (environmental). At least one-third of the certifications performed worldwide by ABS Quality Evaluation have been of integrated systems. The ISO 9000:2000 revision draft has already incorporated the business model initiated with ISO 14001. If the combination of quality, environment and safety in one certification is seen as too much for one effort, or too much to propose at once upon an organization, could an ISO safety management system be proposed, or perhaps an environmental/safety standard?

Years ago, the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ISO Technical Committee 207 for ISO 14000 (TC-207) (1) decided not to encourage the creation of a safety management system. In the U.S. Tag 207 meeting of November 1999, this position was reaffirmed.

Could insurance companies push the decision in creating an ISO safety standard guideline? ISO committees and work groups listen to the opinion of a mixture of industries and services companies, including insurance. Would risk engineers working for insurance companies support a discount on premiums when shown an ISO certificate during their annual audits? Insurance companies have strong clout; an example is that their influence has prevented smoking during work hours.

The ISO approach
National and international safety-related organizations could take over the task of safety management systems, but they have links to legally enforceable rules such as U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, while ISO is synonymous with internationally agreed management systems. The systematic ISO approach brings a mighty tool to the path of continuous improvement.

Generally, business today is very competitive. Issues once viewed as pure expense are increasingly being seen as investment for near-term profit; the environmental management systems (EMS) are being oriented to remove the automatic qualification of "expense" from every single environmental endeavor. Businesses are examining and seizing any advantage, even those once categorically shunned by conventional business wisdom.

Profits through partnering
This new age of business thinking and competition has introduced a dynamic world market so fixed on the competitive edge that the term "mergermania" has been coined. Though not always peaceful mergers, the result is virtually the same. International trade agreements continue to form as economies and currencies are merging. Business philosophies are changing to include merger-type relationships among historically isolated companies with associations called "partnering." This trend will continue as all organizations strive for higher profits in a more competitive world.

So what's the big leap to combine the ISO 9000 and 14000 standards (and potential safety management standard) in the midst of other mergers of such gargantuan proportion? None. Expect it; not in 2000, nor even in 2001, because the discussions pertinent to the development of a standard certainly take more than one year. The fallout will be the same as is seen in any organization going through a merger or even a modest change in the best interest of its own survival. Or maybe more appropriately said in this case, "in the best interest of achieving its mission."

Environmental issues are on the international political forefront. Ozone depletion caused by industrial air emissions has made exposure to the sun especially harmful to our skin; soil nutrient breakdown has been observed in overpopulated or deforested areas; plankton and excessive fish kills are extinguishing species such as the whales; and deforestation has decreased the oxygen available for us to breathe.

The great increase in the production rate of harmful effluents and waste while natural resources depletion was accelerated happened in the last century, hand-in-hand with industrialization. As the world hits environmental critical mass, the demand for both a cleaner environment and quality in business operations will drive all efforts to meld the best systems and procedures to ensure them. Redundancy in costs and time associated with installing, maintaining and auditing separate systems that could just as well be one will not be good enough. The mentioned standards already share the ISO concepts for creating and modifying documents, correcting deviations in a way that prevents recurrence, and internal audits for checking implementation and management reviews, which can use the data to dictate the next step in the spiral of improvements.

Benefits for both sides
The issues addressed by ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 are dovetailed such that their combination will bring benefits for both the auditing bodies and the certificate holders. The auditing bodies' benefit will be performing the audits "in one trip," in a more global manner that would simplify the audits' investigations. The certificate holders will benefit because their organizations will not be disrupted multiple times a year, or the same area visited multiple times with similar questions once a merger is effected.

More importantly, significant improvements and efficiencies to both product quality and the environment would be realized. For example, a more environmentally correct part could be made of a lighter material pre-molded very closely to final fabrication tolerance, that does not require painting or coatings. The tighter tolerance will cause less scrap material (less waste of purchased steel) and lower landfill costs, and avoiding painting reduces air emissions of the manufacturing facility. The lighter material could simplify the handling and even contribute to the reduction of the wear and tear of its transportation and handling areas.

Could the momentum of such a combination carry over into the arena of safety? Probably. To the example above, we could also add that the new material is less flammable, preventing emergency risks. Operational control procedures already addressing quality and environmental considerations within the management system would address safety matters (and already are in some integrated systems). Could OSHA 29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 1910 (Process Safety Management) be in the list of the applicable legislation identified by the organization implementing a management system? Safety measures and general regulations are already part of integrated systems. How far such an approach could go will always somewhat depend on the mentor of the management system.

A thin line between environmental and safety
The line between environment and safety is very thin in most circumstances and invisible in others. Is noise an environmental or a safety and labor issue? It is a negative impact affecting the environment immediate to the source of noise, and people who are working within it. Still, technically speaking, the environmental noise will be monitored at the perimeter of the facility, and labor protection countermeasures will be established for the immediately affected workers within the site. Would a wall diminish the perimeter noise? We would still have workers forced to wear hearing protection. Could the noise be diminished directly at the source?

In another case of preparedness and response to emergencies (section 4.4.7 of the ISO 14001 Standard), could we leave completely out any consideration protecting the potentially affected human beings? Could we not train and instruct on steps to be safe? In another case, could the operational controls (4.4.6 section of the ISO 14001 Standard) of an activity that included the installation and maintenance of air scrubbers include alarms or other methods advising the workers of out-of-control levels of airborne contaminants in the area?

Section 4.3.1 of the ISO 14001 Standard requires the organization to identify aspects and impacts (in normal, abnormal and emergency conditions, per Annex A of the Standard) of its activities, products and services. The standard is not prescriptive in how to achieve the identification, but many EMSs have included analysis initiated by life cycle assessments. Even more popular have been the analyses based in risk assessments initiated by safety programs.

A change for the better
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced the funding of a study investigating the ISO 14001 registration process to educate stakeholders on third-party certification value. Meanwhile, the EPA Maryland Science Center is seeking certification in the coming months. Still, EPA, though recognizing points in favor of 14001, dislikes the fact that an organization's management system can be certified while working toward compliance ("EPA Working Group Submits Language Changes on ISO 14001" Int'l Envtl. Sys. Update, March 1999). OSHA would likely, and understandably, start raising its voice too, in the event that ISO starts discussing safety.

The old adage that "the only thing that we can be certain of is change," certainly applies here. And fortunately for issues of world environment and quality, the complexion of the ISO and its standards are sure to change for the better. The benefits and possibilities are here.

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This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.

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