When executed correctly, a comprehensive and disciplined environmental management program can increase operational efficiency and improve productivity. Common environmental management strategies in a lab, such as being more efficient with consumables, reducing waste and the costs associated with that waste or using less energy, also accrue to a company’s bottom line.
The ISO 14000 family of standards provides organisations with a useful guide for recognising and taking advantage of opportunities to minimize environmental impact. As outlined in ISO 14001, this is primarily done using an environmental management system (EMS), which is a framework that helps lab managers identify opportunities for improvement and successfully execute against them.
The core of ISO 14001 is a five step environmental management process (Figure 1). The process is flexible enough to help labs address nearly any aspect of their workflow that has environmental impact, from instrument energy usage to waste solvent processing and sample disposal.
Figure 1. The five-step EMS (source: US EPA).
ISO 14000 and information management
As with most things in the laboratory, an EMS is only impactful if its results can be measured accurately and consistently. Lab management’s ability to judge the effectiveness of the program, and, by extension, report findings and make recommendations to senior management, ultimately rests on the quality of their dataset.
In addition to enterprise systems that capture operational data and process activities, another helpful resource for collecting these performance data is a laboratory information management system, or LIMS. LIMS are commonly used by labs to collect and manage sample data, but they are also effective solutions for collecting, organising and reporting EMS data. Just as a LIMS can track the progress of a sample, it can also monitor lab workflow and instrument health, and from an environmental policy standpoint, the LIMS can also be utilised to support the capture and analysis of environmental monitoring activities. Together, an ISO 14000 compliant EMS and a LIMS provide organisations with the ability to monitor and reduce environmental impacts, a discipline that also translates into process efficiency gains as well.
Step 1: Planning
Step one in developing an EMS is identifying and cataloguing all lab operations that have the potential to impact the environment. This catalogue is used to establish objectives and targets for the upcoming period (typically a quarter or fiscal year). Common objectives include lowering energy usage or reducing the output of hazardous waste. Legislative changes, such as the EU REACH (Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) program should also be considered during the planning step.
A LIMS supports this process by providing a virtual ‘map’ of the lab that management can use to identify processes that may have the greatest negative environmental impact. This could, for example, highlight the analytical methods responsible for the highest use of a specific solvent, or the procedure that requires the highest allocation of instrument time to complete. This map is then used to prioritise which strategies will provide the greatest return for their effort.
Step 2: Implementation
After management identifies wasteful, environmentally hazardous or inefficient processes that it plans to improve or replace, it must then roll out these changes to lab employees. A LIMS makes this effort much easier by streamlining some of the more the onerous aspects of EMS implementation, from employee training on new procedures, to defining roles and responsibilities for capture and processing of potentially hazardous incidents.
The streamlining of employee training is especially important for labs that have frequently changing workflows. A LIMS can be the repository for standard operating procedures (SOPs), providing step by step instructions on new responsibilities and maintaining a paperless record that tracks employee actions for future analysis and reporting.
A LIMS can also automate communications processes to alert staff to potential non-compliance with EMS strategies. If a parameter being monitored through the LIMS reaches a critical user defined point, the system will send an alert instantly to relevant decision makers both inside and outside the lab. This dramatically reduces response times, improves EMS performance and can mitigate additional cost or damage caused by response delays.
Once the LIMS triggers an environmental alert, the system can also help employees solve the problem. As with stored SOPs for normal lab operations, the LIMS provides step by step checklists that allow an affected lab employee to quickly and thoroughly resolve the problem, recording each action taken and further improving EMS performance.
Step 3: Evaluation
At the end of a monitoring period, labs must review performance data and evaluate the progress toward achieving EMS goals. This is the most data intensive step in the process, and this is an area where a LIMS excels: collecting, managing and making sense of large data sets. Not only is all relevant data organised centrally, it is also done in such a way to streamline eventual reporting and enable management to make frequent progress checks as needed. LIMS tools such as real time dashboards and the ability to quickly export data for analysis make data evaluation a much more accessible task for the laboratory manager.
Step 4: Management review
ISO 14000 requires lab management to periodically review their progress towards EMS goals, a step that for some can be disruptive. A LIMS enables management to avoid disruption, periodic review is accomplished in a few simple steps. EMS progress is presented in a form that is most useful to management via dashboards developed in advance. Likewise, the LIMS streamlines reviews at the end of each EMS cycle, providing hard data for management, for example solvent usage and laboratory incidents per month, to assess performance and make data driven recommendations for the next EMS reporting period.
Step 5: (Re)Commitment
At the end of each EMS period, a lab’s management reports results to an auditing body and commits to goals for the next period. Once again, the LIMS simplifies this process by generating reports that are tailored to the auditors’ needs. It also provides information for data driven decision making so that management recommits to future EMS goals with precision and rigor, starting a new cycle with clear and measureable goals for performance.
Environmental stewardship, as measured by programs such as ISO 14000, needn’t be the enemy of efficiency and profitability. With a single LIMS platform, it’s now possible to drive better performance through more disciplined environmental management for the laboratory. A process that was once considered onerous and expensive can instead be treated as a performance driver and cost reduction program. A LIMS enable EMS does, after all, provide a yearly opportunity to discover areas for process improvement, not just to reduce waste or conserve resources. Seen through this lens, ISO 14000 benefits include so much more than environmental stewardship alone.
Written by Colin Thurston, Project Director, Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Edited by Claira Lloyd
Read the article online at: https://www.hydrocarbonengineering.com/special-reports/11112014/iso-compliance-thermo-fisher/