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Environmental Risk Assessments Should Consider All Situations
It is all very well to perform environmental risk assessments, or indeed a risk assessment for any area of potential danger or damage, when considering normal conditions, but thought must also be given to potential factors and issues which may take place or arise. In fact, these unexpected conditions or influences can often bring about the greatest disasters and damaging accidents which affect the environment and the safety, health and well-being of people in the local vicinity.
No matter how confident a company is in its people, machinery and systems, there will always exist the possibility of something going wrong, or something happening which is beyond the organisation’s control. This risks makes it imperative that a company has thorough and robust procedures in place for dealing with unexpected eventualities, as well as workers who are well-trained in dealing with emergency situations that they are unlikely to have experienced before.
Examples of exceptional and unusual occurrences include:
Natural events which can cause damage to buildings and structures such as nuclear reactors or the storage tanks of hazardous substances. Once damaged, toxic material can be expelled in an explosion or leak out onto the surrounding ground and into watercourses. This can impact a huge area of land, often far greater than the scale of the original incident such as an explosion. Although not caused by a natural event, the scale of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster gives an idea of the vast areas which can be affected, with an estimated 200,000 square kilometers of Europe contaminated from the explosion (Source: World Health Organization)
Fire. Precautions need to be put into place not only to prevent the outbreak of fire, but also to prevent an environmental incident should one take place. This can include reinforcing storage areas with fire-proof materials, or locating materials or substances which can have significant negative effects upon the environment away from sources of ignition or other flammable items.
Worker Mistakes. Procedures that are in place may be sufficient when followed correctly, but there are also likely to be times when workers make mistakes and either do something which they should not, or forget to do something. Whilst it will in all likelihood be impossible for any organisation to cover every potential eventuality and worker action (or inaction), the company should try and introduce as many safeguards as possible which either alert an employee to the issue so that they can take action, or systems which automatically correct and prevent incidents such as shutting down machinery or venting gas/steam to prevent explosions.
Sabotage or Terrorism. Places of work which have a lot of hazardous material on site that can damage the environment can often be in the national interest too, performing functions such as electricity generation or weapons production. As such, they may be targets for those who wish to cause disruption for that particular country. These sites need to ensure that they have suitable security measures in place to prevent unauthorised access to the premises, as well as creating thorough and well-rehearsed emergency procedures to prevent or at worst limit damage to the environment, as well as addressing the safety of everyone in the area.
Power Failure. Processes and safety features such as automated shut-offs may function perfectly, but if they are all powered by electricity from the mains what happens if that electricity supply fails? The introduction of back-up generators which provide emergency electricity when mains power fails is a way of mitigating this potential cause of a problem.
An Environmental Assessment Has Many Stages
An area of land which is the intended site for a new building may have been contaminated at some time in the past, so much so that it poses a threat to the health and safety of future occupants of the site. Environmental contamination could have occurred in a variety of ways, both unintentionally and possibly deliberately, which means that a thorough environmental assessment should take place before building work commences. By completing the assessment before construction or demolition work begins, remedial action can be taken without the requirement to knock down or dismantle any existing building work which has already been started (it is much easier to take action on contaminated ground before there is a big structure built on top of it!).
Conducting an environmental assessment is not as simple as having a quick look around the area and sticking a few probes in the ground to take some measurements though. It will begin with looking at the documents which detail the previous uses of the site and the activities of the previous occupants, as this will give a fairly accurate idea as to the potential contaminants which may be present in the ground on the site, and as such can be thoroughly and completely tested for, measured and assessed to determine if there is any potential hazard to health.
After reading about previous uses from the documents, preliminary site investigations can begin where samples may be taken and sent away for analysis. Investigators must also keep in mind that documentary records may not be 100% accurate and complete, and that there may be additional hazards present which were not apparent from studying documents alone. A full investigation will then ensue and result in conclusions as to what work if any needs to be undertaken in order to make the site safe for future occupation.
The serious potential risks to the health, safety and welfare of those who would occupy the site after construction make comprehensive environmental assessments essential for preventing harm coming to these people. Whilst many sites are likely to be free of any environmental contaminants which could harm human health, some will have the potential to cause serious illness or even death in extreme cases, particularly if children will be the main occupants of the new building (e.g. a school or nursery is to be built).
Only those who have received suitable and proper training in how to carry out environmental assessments should do so. Without sufficient knowledge, crucial items and issues may be missed which could result in harm coming to others.
How Can Environmental Controls Also Benefit a Business?
A number of managers will believe that complying with environmental regulations and health and safety legislation will result in additional costs, time delays and generally be detrimental to the output and profit levels for the business. It is for this reason that many of those in charge will initially be reluctant to commit to environmental training or indeed any sort of health and safety training which is over and above the minimum required by law (and not be happy about having to do just this either!) In fact though, the reality is that training, development and controls often have the opposite effect in that it can prove highly beneficial for the business and pay for itself many times over in the long run.
Obviously one of the primary benefits is that complying with legislation and regulations will avoid the potential requirement for having to pay hefty fines, suffer temporary shutdowns whilst remedial action is taken, and have to deal with intrusive and disruptive inspections as a result of increased scrutiny by regulators which comes after an environmental breach or allegation of environmental malpractice. Environmental training and qualifications can pay for themselves many times over and in a particularly short period of time if it serves to avoid such situations from occurring in the first place through increased worker environmental awareness and understanding.
Along with avoiding negative consequences such as the fines and loss of production described in the paragraph above, strong environmental controls and procedures can provide benefits to the business through reducing waste and utilising resources more efficiently. This will bring down costs and raise profit margins, again in all likelihood covering the cost of the original training many times over.
Furthermore, corporations who are viewed as polluters of the environment, either by their actions over time or because of a catastrophe which causes a one-off yet devastating environmental disaster can have their reputation and brand image seriously damaged, sometimes beyond repair. This can drastically reduce sales revenue as consumers shun or boycott their products in anger over their impact upon the environment.
So rather than being an irritant and a costly waste of time, environmental training and the introduction of controls and procedures are in fact a tremendous investment not only for the benefit of the planet and local wildlife, but also with regards to the finances of the company in terms of its future profitability and sales revenue.
Different Businesses Need Different Environmental Processes
All businesses will affect the environment in some way. This can take the form of their energy usage, the origins and sustainability of their raw input materials, types of substances used or stored on-site and their potential damage to the environment if there happened to be an accident, the expulsion of waste, and many more. As a result, employees of every organisation will benefit from holding environmental health and safety qualifications, or at the very least attending courses which include an element that looks at how the actions of workers can have an effect upon the surrounding environment such as the NEBOSH General Certificate or an IOSH Managing Safely course.
However, whilst all businesses have an impact upon the environment to some extent, different businesses will have differing levels of both current and potential environmental damage that can be inflicted if an accident or incident took place. For example an office which can negatively affect the environment in a fairly limited way such as by using more electricity than is necessary or throwing paper away in the general refuse bin rather than recycling it, will require less complex and robust environmental control procedures and management systems that a toxic chemical company or oil refinery where the potential impact upon the environment of the surrounding area can be extremely extensive if an incident occurred.
These businesses which have the potential to be major polluters will need rigorous processes and management systems in place, along with highly effective monitoring systems to minimise the chances of environmental damage. They will also need a highly-trained workforce with knowledge of environmental issues as well as any other necessary areas such as COSHH or permits to work.