Man in field next to wind turbines

Identifying Environmental Aspects and Impacts

Identifying Environmental Aspects and Impacts – Race to The Finish

Seven years ago I competed in my first marathon it was hard – very hard. As everyone always says, in the last six miles of the race you hit a wall, and a very well built and extremely big wall it was, too!

Something that feels very much like the last few miles of a marathon and which causes students a lot of pain is assessing environmental aspects and impacts – as  covered in Unit 1, Element 3 of the NEBOSH Diploma in Environmental Management: ‘Control Strategies for Environmental Risk’. Often, when I am delivering courses or marking assignments, I note that this is an area where people seem to struggle and fail to complete the task properly.

Where do we start? Well, before we actually identify aspects and impacts we need to understand what it is we are actually assessing; this, in technical terms, is known as the activity. An activity is simply the thing that is going to be assessed for its aspects and impacts. Now, an ideal activity to choose is one that is not too big or too small; it should be something manageable. If you choose something too big, it is likely to be too complex and some aspects will be missed. Conversely, if it is too small, the task becomes laborious when it doesn’t need to be.

A good way to identify activities is to consider those that relate to completion of a task or service by looking at the flow of processes. For example, using our marathon analogy it might cover something along the lines of:

  • runner applies for the race;
  • the application is processed;
  • race details (a number etc.) are posted out;
  • the race route is prepared;
  • the runners are transported to the start (by car, bus, rail, etc);
  • the race is run;
  • the runners return home;
  • the course is dismantled.

The processes may need to be broken down further, into sub-processes, if they are large and complex.

By this point we should have a list of activities. The next task is to work out the environmental aspects. A common approach is to work out what the environmental inputs and outputs are going to be for each activity.

Let’s have a look at one of our race activities to get you thinking: transportation to the start line. If the runner arrives by car, for example, an input might be vehicle fuel and an output will be emissions to air (such as carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and particulates).

Once this stage is complete for all aspects of an activity the next stage is to try to understand what the impacts of the aspects are. Now, if we think of an aspect as being the cause, the impact is the effect that the aspect has on the environment. So, for our air emissions impacts will be the likes of climate change or acid deposition.

Anything on the output side is something that is actually released from the activity itself. On the input side, we are interested in how the resource has been extracted, manufactured, or transported to the site. These are classed as indirect aspects/impacts, as the outputs capture when the input turns into a pollutant. So, for vehicle fuels an example impact might be the extraction of a finite resource.

A word of caution, though: activities are often erroneously classed as aspects. For example, storing hazardous substances and production processes are not aspects – they are activities. Additionally, spillage, noisy machinery and waste production are not impacts – they are aspects.

And to end with another running analogy – in some ways, how you do in a running race is very similar to completing an exam: the more effort you put into the training/revising the better time you will achieve in a race, or the better mark you will get in an exam. Bar those annoying few ‘super-people’, of course, who are very talented at both!

John Binns

John Binns BSc (Hons), MSc, MSc, MIEMA

With over 15 years’ experience working in environment management, John Binns BSc (Hons) MSc MIEMA is an experienced environmental tutor and consultant with knowledge of health and safety management.

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