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  7. Why Conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment?

Why Conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment?

Oil spilled and covering floor

An environmental impact assessment is performed, as its name suggests, in order to identify and evaluate the potential impacts upon the environment at the decision making stage before work commences or operations are altered. By conducting the impact assessment at the outset, potential problems can be considered and changes can be made to mitigate them before a lot of time and money has been spent and wasted getting to that point.

Just as it is with regards to health and safety and indeed numerous other aspects of life, thorough planning and prevention is far more preferable than having to deal with the aftermath and consequences of an accident or an event which does not unfold as planned. Not only can this be preferable in terms of life and death if it is a health and safety issue, but is also highly beneficial from a financial viewpoint as the amount of money which needs to be spent in performing the environmental impact assessment and making the modifications recommended by its conclusions is often far less than would need to be spent on items such as clean-up costs, compensation payouts and regulatory fines for breaches of environmental or health and safety regulations.

Why Environmental Assessments Start with Documents

Whenever there are plans to build something on a site, an environmental assessment will attempt to discover if there are any potential risks to the health, safety and wellbeing of people based on hazards present as a result of previous uses of the land. This will attempt to answer pertinent questions to determine what risks may be present like:

  • Potential explosions from methane gas if the site was previously used as a rubbish dump and landfill site
  • Contaminated groundwater
  • Radioactive material
  • Unstable soil/ground which may cause future buildings to collapse

Many people will be under the impression that environmental assessments are simply a case of visiting the site and looking to see what is there and measuring concentrations of various substances. However it is far quicker, simpler and, most importantly, much more thorough if an investigator knows what they should be looking for and what to find, especially as they can then bring the right tools and equipment with them. As an extreme example, an investigator may not even consider bringing a Geiger counter to measure radioactivity of the site if they have no idea that it was once used for the disposal of nuclear waste.

Where does an investigator start then?

The best way of determining what environmental hazards may be present on the site in question is to start with the study of documents which detail the previous uses (there is likely to be more than one) of the site. By understanding what activities were undertaken there, the associated risks can be quickly and easily determined, and subsequently comprehensive plans and measuring systems devised to assess the risk.

Don't rely on just documents though

Whilst documents about past uses are the best way to start an assessment and will often detail everything that has happened, it is important that an investigator or assessor also keeps in mind that some documents may be missing or be incomplete, so much so that they do not accurately detail every activity that has ever taken place there. As a result, it may be the case that there could be some environmental hazard which may go undetected if the investigator only looks for possible threats based on what they have discovered from the documents which they have studied beforehand. They will therefore need to be open-minded about other potential dangers to health that may exist and be present, and will need to test for this accordingly.

What is the Difference Between Environmental Audits and Inspections?

Environmental audits and inspections are two distinctly different things which go hand-in-hand together in order to ensure that a business minimises the chances of damaging or negatively impacting the environment in some way. Both need to be performed regularly and thoroughly by the company in order for their environmental controls to be effective and fit for purpose.

But what is the difference between the two? An environmental inspection is typically concerned with hazard identification. A company will perform an inspection during its environmental risk assessment process, indentifying potential or actual risks to the surrounding environment.

Just as a financial audit checks the current processes that are involved in the financial transactions for the company, an environmental audit is performed to assess the effectiveness of current controls, processes and procedures regarding environmental safety and the prevention of an incident taking place. If they are deemed not to be sufficient or flag up improvements for further reducing the likelihood for an accident happening, then remedial steps can be taken based on these findings.

Accident Investigation for Environmental Incidents

In any aspect regarding health and safety the prevention of accidents is preferred to having to deal with the aftermath, and environmental incidents are no exception.

Many different forms of accidents can have a direct effect upon the environment, sometimes lasting for long periods of time such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which still makes the surrounding area uninhabitable decades later, so it is imperative that suitable and sufficient control and preventative measures are in place to prevent an accident or incident which has a damaging impact on the environment, whether this be to humans, animals, plant life or atmospheric damage to the ozone layer or build up of greenhouse gases.

Whenever there is an accident or near miss which has actual or the potential for damage to the environment it must be thoroughly investigated. Whilst some may think that by this time it is too late to do anything as the incident has already taken place, in actual fact it is crucial that meticulous accident investigation takes place so that the causes of the accident can be determined with the intention of putting into place more effective safeguards to prevent future occurrences, as it is 99.9% certain that the incident came about through inadequate safety measures or deficient procedures.

In the case of a near miss which does not result in any damage to health or the environment, the organisation had a lucky escape this time, but next time they may not be so lucky, and so investigating the causes and situation which led up to this near miss will allow steps to be taken to prevent it from happening again, which may that time result in a fully-blown environmental disaster.

Of course, in order to carry out extensive investigations, competent persons who have undertaken accident investigation training and have a thorough knowledge not only of the existing systems, procedures and processes that are utilised by the company, but also of environmental issues and hold an environmental qualification like the NEBOSH Environmental Certificate for example.

Environmental Near Misses

Even with comprehensive health and safety training and all of the risk assessments and planning in the world, there will still be the possibility of accidents and incidents occurring. This can be due to many reasons, such as a worker making a mistake, automatic safeguards failing, overwhelming forces of nature such as an earthquake or tsunami affecting the site etc. Just as these incidents can affect the health and safety of people both on and near the site, there will also be incidents which can have environmental consequences and cause harm to the surrounding plant and animal life.

More common than actual incidents will be near misses. This is when operations do not go quite as intended or safety features do not function as well as expected, and an accident is avoided but was close to occurring. Environmental near misses are those which would negatively affect the environment should the incident have taken place.

Whether it is an environmental near miss or one which would have put at risk those people working on site, all near misses need to be thoroughly investigated to determine the factors which contributed to it happening. This is because it is highly likely that existing working practices, procedures, control measures, safety features and the like are not effective enough at preventing an incident coming about. If they were then this near miss would in all honesty not have happened. It will therefore be necessary for steps to be taken to tighten up these factors with the intention of preventing such issues conspiring again to create the potential for an accident or incident, as the next time it may not be a near miss but one which actually causes substantial damage to the health of people or to the environment.

As well as improving processes and safeguards, workers may actually need to receive more training in environmental safety and hazards, and how to perform risk assessments that focus on environmental impacts and consequences. The NEBOSH Environmental Certificate is a qualification which is becoming increasingly popular as firms concentrate more on how their operations can affect the surrounding environment, and the subsequent financial implications and loss of reputation that can come with the media attention and negative publicity of being a polluter or harmer of the environment.

The Financial Impact of Environmental Accidents

Depending upon the scale, substances involved, proximity to populated areas and other such factors, accidents will have differing impacts. For some, the result can involve significant damage to the surrounding environment, sometimes for a long period of time afterwards if, for example, it is an oil spillage or nuclear material escaping.

Although the consequences for people and associated injuries, illnesses or deaths will always take precedence and be the primary concern, companies also face extremely serious financial ramifications from any major environmental accident which could and should have been prevented. These financial implications involve provisions necessary for compensating affected people or their families, fines from regulators, court costs incurred, cost of the accident investigation, and the cost of rebuilding and constructing new buildings and machinery. Along with these costs, there is also likely to be a dramatic fall in sales revenue as consumers shun the company's products in anger over the damage that has been done to the environment. To try and rebuild its shattered brand image, the company will usually have to spend heavily on advertising and on charitable and worthy causes.

It is for these reasons why environmental considerations are becoming an ever-increasing part of company health and safety training programmes, and why many courses including the NEBOSH General Certificate and the CITB SMSTS courses will look at the impact upon the environment that workers can have from their actions or inactions, not to mention the rise in popularity of dedicated environmental qualifications like the NEBOSH Environmental Certificate and Environmental Diploma. For more information on NEBOSH courses, please click here.

Keep the Details of Environmental Clean-Up Companies Close

Environmental Risks are Virtually Impossible to Eliminate Entirely

Similar to all health and safety dangers, nobody wants an accident to take place, but it is imperative to be prepared for this very eventuality. Even with exceptionally thorough and high-quality health and safety training being provided to employees, coupled with stringent safety controls and a strong health and safety culture in the business which is actively promoted by management, there will still exist the possibility of an incident or accident taking place.

Health and safety training and preventative measures can in most instances only reduce the likelihood of such an incident happening; it cannot ever totally eliminate any possibility of it taking place. Whilst substituting a hazardous chemical for another substance which is completely harmless may eliminate the risk from the hazardous substance itself, it will still not completely eliminate every possible risk to health and safety, as a person could still slip on a spillage or drop the container on their foot etc. Only completely shutting up shop and closing the business will actually eliminate every danger, but obviously this is not reasonably practical!

By having a workforce which is highly-trained in environmental safety matters and holding qualifications like the NEBOSH Environmental Certificate or similar, a company's aim is to minimise the chances of an incident or accident occurring which can cause damage to the environment. Despite this, no amount of environmental training, health and safety courses, planning or safety controls will be able in all practicality to reduce the probability of such an incident occurring down to zero percent. This means that despite best efforts, unfortunately accidents can and do happen.

Environmental Incidents

Environmental incidents also follow a similar theme in that for the vast majority of companies it will not be reasonably practical to take the drastic steps necessary to completely eliminate any potential risk to the environment. No matter how stringent the safety protocols and failsafes are, or how much training is given in the form of the NEBOSH Environmental Certificate qualification or similar environmental courses, there will also exist the possibility of an environmental incident taking place.

The Need to be Prepared for an Environmental Emergency

As such it is imperative for companies to be prepared to deal with an environmental incident which happens to take place unexpectedly, no matter how confident they are about their safeguards, working procedures and competence levels of their employees. The exact nature of the environmental incident will determine the appropriate action required, but it may be the case that it demands the services of a specialist environmental clean-up company to help remedy the situation.

The Benefits Of Calling-In An Environmental Clean-Up Specialist

These environmental clean-up specialists will not only be suitably trained and highly knowledgeable regarding the substances in question and the associated dangers which the substance can cause to the human body and to plant and animal life, but will also be able to conduct the clean-up without endangering any more people or causing further devastation to the environment. This makes choosing the correct environmental specialists for the task of paramount importance, not only to rectify the existing situation, but to actually not make it even worse than it already is.

Choose A Suitable Environmental Clean-Up Specialist

To choose the correct environmental clean-up specialists it will be necessary to take into consideration the points mentioned above. There is a real danger that an already hazardous and damaging state of affairs can be made even more catastrophic to health and habitat if the clean-up is performed incorrectly. Therefore those who are brought in to carry it out need to be suitably trained themselves in the risks and dangers from the substance(s) in question. Just as a deficiency in knowledge on the part of workers who have not received suitable health and safety training can put them at risk, a lack of knowledge amongst the clean-up personnel regarding the dangers to health from the substances being encountered can place them at risk, or contribute to them taking an action which causes further harm to the surrounding environment. These secondary consequences are easily forgotten about and overlooked when trying to deal with the original incident, for example tackling a fire with water which then washes pollution into groundwater and surrounding watercourses.

Tackling an environmental accident will nearly always require the clean-up personnel to wear protective clothing and use specialist tools or equipment. Therefore those who are called in to clean-up a situation need to have such clothing and equipment, in addition to it being in good condition and suitable for purpose, so that they can carry out the task without harm coming to themselves.

Avoiding the Temptation to Clean Up Environmental Hazards as Soon as Possible

A significant, if not the main, purpose of providing health and safety training to workers and putting into place stringent control measures and procedures, is to prevent an accident or incident from taking place. If one were to occur, it can put the health, safety and wellbeing of both people and other living organisms in danger, with the potential for illness, injury and possibly death depending upon the severity of the incident and the substances involved. Of course, even with all the health and safety courses available and taking all necessary precautions under the sun, there will always exist a possibility, however slight, that an accident will happen.

Where environmental hazards are concerned, accidental spillages or similar can cause major devastation to the affected habitat, plant life and aquatic creatures. A spillage of substances such as oil for instance can cause significant loss of life for all creatures living in the water or relying upon it for feeding.

Whatever the substances which have been accidentally released, a company's first thoughts should be to shut off the source of the release to ensure that no more escapes and contributes further to the problem, and to notify appropriate groups such as environmental agencies and the emergency services.

The Danger Of Rushing To Clean-Up

A natural reaction may also be to attempt to clean up the affected area straight away, particularly when the damage being done can easily be seen and a company wishes to rectify its mistake. However, this can sometimes create an additional problem by placing those employees who are given the task of cleaning it up at risk in terms of a danger to their own health and safety. The reason for this is that if a substance is hazardous to the environment then there is a high probability that it is also harmful to people too, and so any contact with it can endanger the health and wellbeing of a person.

For certain hazardous substances, clean-up needs to be conducted by specially trained personnel who have the correct protective clothing and equipment for the task. Without it, a person faces a lot of risk to their own personal health and safety, and should at least wait until the hazard has been thoroughly assessed before attempting any sort of clean up, assuming that they can indeed clean it up, as there may be a need to leave it for the specialists or professionals.

Employees Should Not Put Themselves in Danger

Cleaning up the incident as quickly as possible is important for preventing the scale of environmental damage and the radius over which it spreads, such as seeping into watercourses and polluting water over a large area. However, employees attempting to clean-up the spillage without the specialist knowledge and protective equipment could put their own personal safety and well-being in peril. Whilst the urge to prevent further harm to the environment and clean up the spill will be strong, it could result in an even bigger disaster were people to become seriously ill as a result of coming into contact with hazardous substances.

Obviously prevention is the most preferable option, but once an environmental incident has occurred it is sometimes necessary to wait for the specialists to arrive on site, even if it does mean a greater negative impact upon the environment, rather than putting employees in harms' way trying to remedy the situation without the proper training and equipment to keep them safe when dealing with the substances involved. Even so, speed is still of the essence to prevent as much harm being done to the environment as possible, and so the clean-up specialists should be called in as soon as possible. This makes it important to have their contact details kept close and in a location where a lot of people know and can access them easily. By getting the team in quickly before the pollutants can spread even further, the less negative impact there will be upon the surrounding environment.

Don't Put Yourself Or Others In Danger

Whilst there may be the urge to clean up the mess as soon as possible, just as first aiders are taught, placing yourself or additional people at risk is not the recommended route to follow. Too much haste to try and help could end up making the situation worse by putting more lives in danger.

Health And Safety Is The Responsibility Of All

Whilst it will be the responsibility of the clean-up company to ensure that their employees have the proper training, equipment and protective equipment to carry out the task, the company which has caused the incident can also play a part by conducting research to ensure that the company chosen to carry out the clean-up are professional and can competently perform the action. Otherwise, not only can the situation cause harm to the health and safety of people, but can also make it worse for the environment through contributing further to the problem and causing additional hazards and dangers.

Environmental Training

Companies and organisations are increasingly seeing the benefit of having managers and a workforce who have received environmental training and achieved qualifications like the NEBOSH Environmental Certificate so that they can have a far greater awareness of the potential impacts of their actions upon the environment, not to mention reducing the chances of an accident or disaster occurring when this training is combined with the introduction and effective monitoring of comprehensive and robust procedures and control measures.

Related Course

Please see below for more information on the NEBOSH Environmental Certificate:

NEBOSH Certificate in Environmental Management

The NEBOSH Environmental Certificate, or NEBOSH National Certificate in Environmental Management to give it its full title, is an environmental health and safety course which is intended to be taken by managers, supervisors and any other employees who are responsible for managing environmental issues at their workplace.

The NEBOSH Environmental Certificate qualification focuses on UK law, so is really only suitable for those who are based and operate within the UK.

Click Here for More Information

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