Is your company's environmental performance on the job a legal liability?

If an employee unexpectedly resigned, would a lot of undocumented "institutional" knowledge go with them?

Are you looking for ways to improve your company's performance and stand out as an environmental leader?

If you answered "Yes" to any of these questions, an environmental management system (EMS) could be the answer you need.

An EMS is an organizational tool a company uses to set performance goals and enlist the entire workforce to achieve them. The systems-based approach to environmental management fosters compliance with the many requirements that apply to a company's operations. An EMS also moves a company beyond compliance to realize additional environmental-and financial-benefits.

Maintaining Compliance

At project start-up, you turn to your EMS to determine all applicable environmental requirements.  You quickly learn that federal, state and municipal requirements for storm water discharges apply at this project site. The Storm Water Action Plan in your EMS provides compliance information, indicates when and where to file a permit application and gives the requirements for a storm water pollution prevention plan and who must prepare and process the paperwork. In the action plan, you find information on best management practices and instructions for installation, along with training materials and auditing checklists for onsite compliance and emergency procedures.

Meeting a Client's Needs

Your client wants a project to meet the requirements of a "green" building standard. Recognizing the contractor's role in green building, you turn to your EMS for a customizable Waste Management Action Plan for handling construction and demolition (C&D) debris. Your EMS also has an Indoor Air Quality Action Plan for protecting indoor air quality during construction, and has information on manufacturers of low-emitting materials and other green products as well as a training program on green building practices for workers.

Anticipating a Client's Needs

Your client operates with an EMS and may require you to meet its environmental goals and requirements, such as one-hundred percent compliance and using green building practices in new construction and major renovation projects. Your client's EMS is based on the ISO 14000 standards developed by the International Organization for Standardization, which require the company to communicate EMS requirements to contractors and other service providers. Your existing EMS gives you a competitive edge during bidding and a performance edge during construction.

In addition to these benefits, an EMS can also:

  • Identify hidden opportunities to reduce costs through process efficiencies
  • Build teamwork by boosting employee morale and retaining valuable employees
  • Raise a company's profile through improving relations with clients, communities and regulators

Developing an EMS

The most widely recognized EMS standard-the ISO 14000 series-is flexible enough to be useful for all kinds of industries, companies and facilities. Many companies use this standard, which applies the "plan-do-check-act" model, as a guide for EMS development and implementation.

The "plan-do-check-act" model directs a company to first examine its processes (e.g., operations or activities) to determine those aspects of its processes that impact the environment. These aspects (e.g., energy use) are called "environmental aspects," the most important of which are considered "significant." The company sets priorities and improvement goals and develops a plan to achieve those goals. It then implements the plan, and checks and corrects problems with management review. The company keeps and organizes the EMS documents-compliance tools, action plans, standard operating procedures (SOP), EMS procedures, training and auditing tools, corrective measures-in one place, the EMS Manual.

Examine Key Processes

A company can choose from among many approaches to determine its significant environmental aspects, such as:

  • Perform a detailed analysis of the "inputs and outputs" for each key company process (e.g., site grading). This approach is helpful when looking for hidden ways to improve process efficiencies, yet can be a considerable time investment for company personnel.
  • Start with a list of significant aspects that are readily apparent, based on legal requirements or known environmental concerns (e.g., air emissions), and then connect them to the applicable processes. This approach delivers an EMS that addresses key environmental issues, yet may result in missed opportunities to make improvements.

A Manageable EMS

Initially, the enthusiasm for developing an EMS often leads to taking on too many commitments, leaving employees bogged down with the many details that go into an EMS. Three things a company could do to keep the EMS on track are:

  • Perform EMS research-One of the first steps a company should take is to designate an employee to research EMSs and identify ways the company could integrate its existing procedures, policies and compliance tools into the new EMS. The employee will gain knowledge of the company's processes and management tools so as to avoid "reinventing the wheel."
  • Set reasonable goals-A company with a fledgling EMS tends to set more "maintain" and "investigate" goals by maintaining compliance and researching the feasibility of specific improvements. A company with a mature EMS tends to set more "improve" goals by challenging itself to be an environmental leader.
  • Start small-Initially, a company may choose to limit its EMS to the main office and equipment yards. It can then gain familiarity with-and fine tune-the EMS prior to applying the system at project sites.

EMS on Project Sites

A construction company may choose to develop a company-wide EMS at the main office, supplemented by project-specific EMSs at each job site. The company-wide EMS organizes the company goals (e.g., one hundred percent storm water compliance) and tracks progress toward meeting those goals. At the start of a project, the team uses the company's EMS resources to pull together a project-specific EMS that implement the company's EMS goals (e.g., a storm water action plan to achieve compliance).  Periodically, the team sends progress reports to the main office.  At the close of the project, the team sends a final report to the main office.

EMS Development Costs


Buy-in from top management is needed to meet the costs associated with EMS development and implementation. Employee time and training are costs a company must consider. At some point, a company may need technical assistance from an experienced consultant. In addition, a company may invest in a software package that maintains the EMS on the company's server or "Intranet."  Books, templates and other tools are available on the Internet for little or no cost.

Additional Resources

The Associated General Contractors of America partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) to develop EMS resources for contractors-including guidelines and templates, a CD-ROM tutorial, and a member's only electronic discussion group.

The U.S. EPA has extensive resources on its website for individual firms and federal agencies that are developing an EMS.

Two U.S. EPA programs build environmental leaders through EMS-the National Environmental Performance Track Program ( and the Sector Strategies Program (

The Small Business Environmental web page provides a list of links and resources related to EMS and the ISO 14000 series.


Melinda L. Tomaino, LEED® AP, is the associate director of environmental services at the Associated General Contractors of America. She can be reached at 703.837.5415 or

Peter Truitt is the industry lead for construction in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Sector Strategies Program.  He can be reached at 202.566.2970 or

The EMS should provide an effective way to comply with legal responsibilities, communicate with employees and the community, prevent pollution and continually improve environmental performance.

"The key to EMS success is based on how you get started. It is extremely easy to get off track.  After performing a detailed gap analysis, you evaluate the various environmental aspects of your company's normal construction activities. It is very tempting to evaluate your activities at a far too detailed level. The results of this activity will yield an EMS that will be far too detailed to manage.  Based on your construction knowledge, you should combine activities that are related in nature on how the environment will be impacted." -- Robert Lanham, Williams Brothers Construction Co.

Federal Environmental Requirements Applicable to Construction

  • Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA)
  • Clean Air Act (CAA)
    • Engine emission standards and fuel specifications
    • Dust control requirements
    • State Implementation Plan requirements
    • Transportation conformity requirements
  • Clean Water Act (CWA)
    • Storm water runoff permit requirements
    • Section 404/wetlands permits
  • Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)
    • Underground storage tanks (also covered under RCRA)
    • Superfund
    • Sites with soils containing hazardous substances
    • Asbestos (also covered under AHERA and NESHAP)
  • Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA)
    • Spill reporting
  • Endangered Species Act (ESA)
  • National Emission Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP)
    • Asbestos (also covered under AHERA and CERCLA)
  • National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
  • National Historic Preservation Act (NHRA)
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)
    • C&D debris
    • Hazardous wastes
    • Lead-based paint waste
    • Mercury-containing fluorescent lamps
    • Underground storage tanks (also covered under CERCLA)
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
    • PCB (polychlorinated biphenol) wastes
  • Other Considerations
    • Brownfields redevelopment
    • Contractual obligations
    • Green building practices
    • Voluntary diesel retrofit

Federal Environmental Requirements Applicable to Construction

  • Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act
  • Clean Air Act
  • Clean Water Act
  • Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act
  • Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act
  • Endangered Species Act
  • National Emission Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants
  • National Environmental Policy Act
  • National Historic Preservation Act
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
  • Toxic Substances Control Act

EMS Use at Federal Agencies

If a construction company's main client is a federal agency, then familiarity with EMS is increasingly important. As part of the series of "greening the government" executive orders (Executive Order 13148), federal agencies were to have developed and implemented an EMS at all applicable facilities by December 31, 2005. Approximately 85 percent of these agencies are using the ISO model for EMS. Many state departments of transportation are also developing and implementing EMS programs. Whereas government agencies have yet to require EMS of contractors and subcontractors, these companies can expect more interest in their environmental performance on the part of the agency. In addition, the Federal Acquisition Regulations allow for preference given to companies with an EMS, as well as a strong history of compliance.

Examples of Construction-Related Goals and Action Plan Summaries

  • Reduce Air Emissions-Investigate diesel engine retrofit costs and opportunities; Investigate the benefits of using biodiesel and other low-emissions fuels; Implement a "no idling" policy on all jobsites; Switch to fuel-efficient company vehicles
  • Comply with Storm Water Requirements-Implement plan to maintain compliance on each job site
  • Increase Recycling Efforts-Implement a paper recycling policy in the company offices; Implement a waste management plan on each jobsite; Recycle 50 percent of non-hazardous C&D debris generated on each job site

Key EMS Elements from the Associated General Contractors of America's Constructing an Environmental Management System: Guidelines and Templates for Contractors (2004). 

  • 1. Define the EMS Structure, Responsibility, Purpose and Scope
  • 2. Develop an Environmental Policy
  • 3. Identify and Ensure Compliance with Legal and Other Requirements
  • 4. Determine Significant Environmental Aspects
  • 5. Establish Objectives (Goals) and Targets
  • 6. Create Action Plans to Achieve Goals
  • 7. Train Employees on EMS Roles and General Awareness
  • 8. Communicate EMS Issues with Employees and Appropriate External Stakeholders
  • 9. Develop an Emergency Preparedness and Response Plan
  • 10. Create and Maintain EMS Manual and Records
  • 11. Correct and Prevent Systems-based and Legal Compliance Problems
  • 12. Perform Internal Audits
  • 13. Establish a Management Review Process

Define the EMS Structure, Responsibility, Purpose, and Scope

The company establishes roles and responsibilities for environmental management, including the "go to" person for the EMS.  This employee researches the elements of an EMS and uncovers how the system can help the company achieve its goals. For example, the company may want to use its EMS to achieve and maintain compliance. The company also defines the scope of the EMS. The company may decide to implement a company-wide overarching EMS that it applies to its job sites with a project-specific EMS.

Develop an Environmental Policy

The company then drafts the Environmental Policy, which is a commitment statement tied into every element of the EMS. Often this statement focuses on compliance, continual improvement, communication, and pollution prevention. The Policy answers the questions of why the company has developed its EMS and what it expects to accomplish.

Identify and Ensure Compliance with Legal and Other Requirements *

A company employee researches legal and other requirements to incorporate this information into its EMS. The company commits to continually update its compliance information and to ensure that all necessary employees can access the information. Maintaining compliance with legal and other requirements (such as contract documents or voluntary commitments) is a crucial EMS goal.

Determine Significant Environmental Aspects *

The company then examines its key processes to discover how these processes interact with the environment. Based on these interactions, the company then identifies its "significant environmental aspects." These aspects are where construction processes have a significant or measurable impact on the environment. Many of these aspects fall under legal requirements, such as "discharges to water" or "use of hazardous materials." Some aspects may relate to the Policy commitments of improving performance and preventing pollution.

Establish Objectives (Goals) and Targets *

After a company determines the significant environmental aspects its EMS will address, the next step is to establish goals and targets for those aspects. These goals typically fall into three categories (1) maintain, (2) improve, and (3) study or investigate. A company should set specific and measurable goals and targets. The "ongoing" designation for a target is only for goals where a company seeks to maintain an existing level of performance. A more specific target is appropriate to address an improvement goal. For example, "Recycle 50 percent of non-hazardous C&D debris generated on all job sites by January 2010." 

Create Action Plans to Achieve Goals *

In order to achieve its goals and targets, the company establishes action plans for each goal.  Some goals may have more than one action plan in order to achieve the desired result. The action plan addresses how the company will achieve the goal and the steps involved. In addition, the plan identifies who at the company is responsible for the completion of each step and what resources are available-including training materials and SOPs.

Train Employees on EMS Roles and General Awareness *

In order to realize the goals in a company's EMS, all employees require some level of training on their EMS responsibilities. The training needs relate directly to the employees' positions in the company and their abilities to impact performance towards meeting a goal.  For example, all field workers should know the basic compliance requirements and what actions to take in emergency situations. The company should incorporate existing training resources into the EMS and develop materials, as needed.

Communicate EMS Issues with Employees and Appropriate External Stakeholders *

The company's EMS also should address communication of EMS goals with the community and other stakeholders, such as regulators and subcontractors. Effective communication with members of the communities in which the company works improves the image of the company and may help a project proceed smoothly. Subcontractors also need to understand the EMS requirements that apply to their activities. For example, the company may have a "no idling" policy that affects subcontractors.

Develop an Emergency Preparedness and Response Plan

The company also should develop an emergency preparedness and response (EP&R) plan as part of its EMS.  How frequently accidents occur and how the company responds to these instances is tied to its EMS performance.  Employees should know who to contact and what to do should an emergency-from accidental spills to natural disasters-occur.

Create and Maintain EMS Manual and Records *

The company's EMS Manual houses the documents associated with the EMS-the Environmental Policy, legal requirements, the company's significant environmental aspects, goals and targets, action plans, SOPs, EMS procedures and associated forms. The employees use these resources when developing a project-specific EMS. The company will also need to maintain EMS records-training sheets, communications, the results of internal audits, and other completed forms.

Correct and Prevent Systems-based and Legal Compliance Problems *

The company establishes in its EMS a means to correct any problems that may occur with non-conformity to the EMS or noncompliance with legal requirements. In addition, the company should look for "root causes" to repeated instances of errors, which will position the company to prevent future occurrences. 

Perform Internal Audits *

Internal audits help a company ensure conformity to the EMS measure the success of the EMS and progress towards goals. Checking the effectiveness of the system ensures that it is operating efficiently and gives the company an opportunity to make improvements.

Establish a Management Review Process *

Management buy-in on the EMS is important throughout the process. An EMS is an investment that should produce results. The company leaders will want to know how the EMS is progressing, whether it is living up to expectations, and if there has been any savings (this includes avoided compliance problems).


* Indicates an element that requires the company to prepare an EMS procedure and associated forms.


Construction Business Owner, March 2007