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Course 790 - Environmental Management Systems (EMS)

Safety guides and audits to make your job as a safety professional easier

Environmental Management System (EMS) Basics

An effective EMS helps a company achieve its environmental goals.

Today it’s more important than ever to the success of organization that they help maintain a balance between socio-economic needs and the environment. The challenge in meeting this goal can best be met by establishing an effective Environmental Management System or “EMS.”

An effective EMS helps a company achieve its environmental goals through consistent control of its operations through the entire life cycle of its products or services. The assumption is this increased control will improve the environmental performance of the company. The EMS itself does not dictate a level of environmental performance that must be achieved; each company's EMS is tailored to the nature of the company's business and goals.

Purpose and Scope

An Environmental Management System (EMS) is a set of systematic processes and practices that enable an organization to reduce its environmental impacts and increase its operating efficiency. The scope of the EMS will depend largely upon the context of operations: its size, activities, and the nature of its products and services.

Compliance Obligations

An EMS helps a company address its environmental compliance obligations in a systematic and cost-effective manner. This proactive approach can help reduce the risk of non-compliance and improve health and safety practices for employees and the public.

The EMS concept represents a fundamental change from the traditional reactive, compliance- based environmental management programs to a proactive, impact-predicting management system focused on the corporate mission and embedded in everyday business processes and activities.


When a systematic approach is taken, top management will have the information to build long term success.

When a systematic approach is taken, top management will have the information to build long term success in meeting environmental goals, including:

  • identifying significant aspects within the context of the organizations operations, and the risks and opportunities they present
  • mitigating the adverse impacts and taking advantage of positive impacts
  • helping the company improve sustained performance and fulfill compliance obligations
  • continually improving all phases of the product throughout the entire life cycle
  • realizing significant cost savings that can result from incorporating effective alternatives
  • incorporating people, procedures, and work practices into a formal structure to ensure that the important environmental impacts of the organization are identified and addressed;
  • promoting continual improvement in the EMS, including periodically evaluating environmental performance; and
  • involving all members of the organization.

While an effective EMS will certainly improve organization’s environmental performance, it has been proven to enhance performance in other mission areas as well. Further, the detailed process of reviewing environmental issues associated with a facility’s activities, products, and services often identifies redundancies, wasted effort, and coordination problems that lead to inefficiencies.

Leadership and Commitment

Both leadership and commitment are extremely important components of an effective EMS.

Both leadership and commitment are extremely important components of an effective EMS. Without it, the EMS will not succeed, so let’s take a look at these important concepts.

Leadership: Top management controls the organization at the top level and has important has overall accountability for the success of the EMS. Managers should set the example and demand high standards of performance for everyone, not just to control other, but because they really care about everyone and the success of the EMS.

Management should take the lead in integrating the requirements of the EMS into the company’s core business strategies, priorities and processes. The EMS is not something separate from the company’s business vision and mission: it’s a vital component of it.

Commitment: A recent study showed that the most effective organizations in making the greatest environmental improvements have very strong upper management commitment. Top level management has an obligation to protect the environment through all the aspects of its business operation. To do this it must clearly state a commitment to:

  • protect the environment
  • meet compliance obligations

Leadership and commitment to the purpose and goals of the EMS can be demonstrated when:

  • Top management owns the EMS. They take accept accountability for the success and failures of the EMS.
  • Managers are involved in establishing environmental policy and objectives that are compatible with the context of the organization.
  • Management is committed to the continual improvement process through the entire life cycle of the products or services from creation to disposal.
  • Management designs the EMS such that it is seamlessly integrated in all phases of the organization’s general operational processes.
  • Systems are set up to make sure all resources in terms of materials, equipment, machinery, and personnel are provided.
  • Employees hear and see managers at all levels of the organization express the importance of the EMS.
  • Management closely analyzes results to make sure the EMS achieves intended outcomes.
  • Managers make sure all employees receive adequate physical and psychosocial support required for an effective EMS.

Developing the EMS

Building an Environmental Management System (EMS) might sound like an overwhelming task for a smaller organization, but it need not be. When it is taken in steps, it is a job any organization can tackle. But, before you dig into the content of the course, be sure to review some important definitions (click on definitions tab) that you must be familiar with if you want an effective EMS.

The Plan-Do-Check-Act Model

There are several models that can be used to develop, implement, and maintain an EMS.

There are several models that can be used to develop, implement, and maintain an EMS. This course uses the model described by the ISO 14001 Standard, which was developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and builds on an approach developed many years ago by quality experts. It focuses on continual improvement through an ongoing cycle of actions called the Plan-Do-Check-Act or continual improvement cycle.

The "Plan, Do, Check, Act" diagram used to illustrate the process is typically a circular image with arrows directing the viewer clockwise through the never-ending continuous improvement process. Briefly, each of the four steps in the cycle involve:

  1. Plan – Planning, including identifying environmental aspects and establishing goals.
  2. Do – Implementing, including training and operational controls.
  3. Check – Checking, including monitoring and corrective action.
  4. Act – Reviewing, including progress reviews and acting to make needed changes to the EMS.

You can also learn more about continual improvement and the PDCA cycle in OSHAcademy Course 700, Module 8.

The Continual Improvement Process

improvement project
Step 1: Develop a policy.

Development and improvement of the EMS is a five-phase cycle:

  1. Environmental Policy – The employer signs a policy statement and makes it available to all employees and the public.
  2. Planning phase – The organization conducts and documents a self-assessment consistent with its EMS policy and informs the employer. The employer compiles a prioritized list of environmental aspects, resulting impacts, and the objectives and targets to reduce negative impacts.
  3. Implementation phase – The employer signs a written plan with scheduled dates, identified resources, timelines and organizational responsibilities for implementing the EMS. The company implements the plan’s programs, processes, procedures, and practices.
  4. Checking and Corrective Action phase
  5. Management Review phase

The Management Review feeds back into the Planning phase to achieve changes required to attain and maintain the desired level of system effectiveness.

Elements of an Effective EMS

ems elements
Be sure to include important elements that all work together as a system.

To develop an effective EMS, be sure to include important elements that all work together as a system. In this course we'll focus on basic elements integrated within each of the five continuous improvement phases of an effective EMS.

  • Environmental Policy - develop a statement of the organization’s commitment to the environment
  • Environmental Aspects and Impacts - identify environmental attributes of products, activities and services and their effects on the environment
  • Legal and Other Requirements - identify and ensure access to relevant laws and regulations
  • Objectives and Targets and Environmental Management Program - set environmental goals for the organization and plan actions to achieve objectives and targets
  • Structure and Responsibility - establish roles and responsibilities within the organization
  • Training, Awareness and Competence - ensure employees are aware and capable of their environmental responsibilities
  • Communication - develop processes for internal and external communication on environmental management issues
  • EMS Documentation - maintain information about the EMS and related documents
  • Document Control - ensure effective management of procedures and other documents
  • Operational Control - identify, plan and manage the organization’s operations and activities in line with the policy, objectives and targets, and significant aspects
  • Emergency Preparedness and Response - develop procedures for preventing and responding to potential emergencies
  • Monitoring and Measuring - monitor key activities and track performance including periodic compliance evaluation
  • Evaluation of Compliance - develop procedure to periodically evaluate compliance with legal and other requirements
  • Nonconformance and Corrective and Preventive Action - identify and correct problems and prevent recurrences
  • Records - keep adequate records of EMS performance
  • EMS Audit - periodically verify that the EMS is effective and achieving objectives and targets
  • Management Review - review the EMS

Support for the EMS

Ensure personnel knows you support the EMS.

Internal Organization Commitment: Top level management must champion the EMS and ensure that key organization or facility stakeholders such as those responsible for budget or facility operations are aware of the management commitment to the EMS. Change comes slowly to any organization. Ensure personnel knows you support the EMS and that they are accountable for the success of this effort.

Environmental Policy: The organization’s senior manager must sign the EMS policy statement. A robust, clear environmental policy statement is a documented reminder of what is expected by senior leadership. The policy is a critical document in the EMS process and is the ultimate guiding environmental principle for each individual within the organization or facility.

Local Community Outreach: Senior managers represent their facility or organization through interaction with local community leaders and should communicate the EMS initiative as a positive message to send to the organization’s neighbors. Communicating this issue to the local community is not only good public relations; it is essential to the success of the EMS because neighbors share our most sensitive environmental concerns.

Take a look at this comprehensive webinar introducing the various aspects of an effective EMS.
(Click to play)

Momentum: Fully implementing a formal EMS may take several years, and maintaining momentum can be a challenge. Sustained vision, leadership and top level management commitment are critical to meeting this challenge. When senior managers maintain interest and commitment, employees also stay focused. There will be some frustrations as implementation progresses and previously unforeseen issues arise. Accept these as opportunities and focus on continual improvement to address existing issues and prevent future problems. Don't allow the focus on the EMS to be diverted by competing initiatives that will result in lesser long-term gains. Remember, organizational attitude reflects leadership!

EMS Team Formation: The core EMS team is selected and provided support and resources to begin development of the organization or facility EMS. This team must receive adequate training to ensure proper development of the EMS.


Every choice you and your employees make can affect the environment. Involving everyone helps produce cost-effective long-term results.

Best results will be achieved by involving everyone in the company in some way. There are two benefits to involving all employees: first, they will be more likely to take ownership of managing environmental concerns; second, they often have valuable insight into how improvements can be made.


Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. A/An _____ is a set of systematic processes and practices that enable an organization to reduce its environmental impacts and increase its operating efficiency.

2. This is the process of enhancing the environmental management system to achieve improvements in overall environmental performance.

3. Which of the following describes the organization’s activities, products or services that can interact with the environment?

4. Which of the following describes any changes to the environment resulting from an organization’s activities, products or services?

5. The EMS model described by the ISO 14001 Standard focuses on continual improvement through an ongoing cycle of actions called the_____.

Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.