ISO in crisis

Tracey Kelsall-Brown, managing director of the Environmental Education and Training Trust, says the revision of the ISO 14001 standard has been handled badly

Whether the UK still wants a manufacturing sector is a question that could well be asked by companies being hit by a little known change to the ISO 14001 standard which, at a stroke, renders the previous certification null and void. In a double-whammy, they are also discovering that the Environment Agency can pursue them in the context of retrospective enforcement actions, which also carry the prospect of massive fines.

A serious threat to companies

What has happened is simply unbelievable. The change in the ISO 14001 standard came in last November, completely unheralded and companies just did not know about it.

The addition of retrospective enforcement, which can be for offences carried out as far as five years back, poses a serious threat to some companies, who may have unwittingly broken the law.

The enforcement policy could see yet more manufacturing companies forced out of business. In the wake of the MG Rover collapse and the repercussions that are inevitably following, we should be encouraging the manufacturing sector rather than making things even more difficult.

This affects the entire manufacturing sector, but the real problem occurs when an SME suddenly discovers they have been unwittingly breaking environmental legislation for a long time. We are currently handling one such case where the time frame is five years. In this case, the first the company knew of its offence was the arrival of a letter from the Agency.

An even bigger problem is that companies which had previously had their EMS certified to ISO 14001 were suddenly faced, in March and April 2005, with certification being withdrawn - absolutely without warning. The new standard, ISO 14001:2004, was introduced following a little-publicised review by the International Standards Committee.

Appalling pressure

The pressure this has put on companies is appalling. The standard demands that current or newly introduced EMS be immediately updated to meet the new requirements. Unless they are, companies will lose their certification.

The onus for implementing the changes is being placed on the companies concerned and no one, large or small, is exempt. But, as we are constantly discovering, many companies are simply unaware of the risk that this poses to their future. It isn't putting too fine a point on it to say that not only are employees' livelihoods at stake, but even the very survival of a company.

Companies have to address these issues at the outset. ISO 14001:2004 is absolutely mandatory. At a stroke, the new standard has rendered the previous ISO 14001 obsolete and companies really do have no option other than to adopt ISO 14001:2004 immediately.

The impact of the changes is considerable and it also includes conformity with the ISO 9001 quality standard, changes in legal requirements and extensively revised documentation requirements. Tough as it is, there is no alternative for companies.


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