Interview with Tara McCullen, Burns & McDonnell Regional Environmental Services Manager in Atlanta

Q: What is an environmental management system (EMS)? Why is it important?
A: An EMS is a framework of processes to proactively control and minimize impacts to the environment, comply with environmental regulations and continually improve environmental performance. Managing environmental data and compliance is an increasing challenge, especially as businesses grow, but staff stays lean. Having a system dependent on processes, rather than individuals, helps promote continuity and consistency.

An EMS helps an organization transition from traditional reactive environmental management to strategic environmental management that is proactive and intentional. It makes compliance requirements more achievable and establishes processes to propel continual improvement and sustainability. The more structured framework of an EMS helps to drive consistency and continuity across the organization, which can be particularly helpful for an organization with multiple sites.

Q: What are key elements of an EMS? How do you make it successful?
A: Leadership’s support of the EMS and commitment to integrate its elements into other business processes is critical. It’s also important to keep it simple and practical. A common pitfall is over-documenting an EMS, creating additional requirements that do not bring value. Every element of the EMS should help your organization more easily and consistently meet your intended outcomes. Ask yourself why you have each component and if it helps meet your goals. If it doesn’t, remove it.

Q: Why is an EMS critical to the success of a sustainability program?
A: An EMS provides a systematic approach to addressing essential elements of a successful sustainability program. First and foremost, leadership commitment from the top is required for sustainability success. Next, an organization must understand its social, economic and environmental context, including conditions and stakeholders, from both an internal and external perspective. Planning activities help to assess and prioritize environmental aspects, risks and opportunities. EMS objectives are established to meet sustainability goals. Processes are developed to ensure reliable and effective internal and external communication of sustainability priorities and performance.

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