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MIT makes push on environmental, health and safety compliance

MIT is launching an ambitious effort to meet environmental, health and safety standards in response to a federal environmental inspection and subsequent consent decree regarding environmental regulations at the Institute.

The Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) management system is being created following an inspection by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1998 and a resulting federal court-approved consent decree agreed to by MIT with the EPA and the Justice Department last June.

The consent decree imposes penalties and a host of requirements--especially a new environmental management system--on MIT to improve its environmental performance and organization, both centrally in the EHS Office and locally in departments, labs and centers.

MIT negotiated with the EPA and the Justice Department to obtain four to five years (rather than the usual nine months) to create an EHS management system that respects the independence of research; creates better EHS accountability in departments, labs and centers; centrally supports EHS stewardship as well as legal compliance; and is a model for academic research. The EPA believes MIT can create a model that will work in other academic settings.

The Academic Council in December adopted an EHS policy, which includes a statement of purpose and guiding principles. The policy states that MIT is committed to being a leader among large academic research institutions in minimizing adverse environmental, health and safety impacts of its facilities, activities and operations; achieving and maintaining compliance with environmental laws and practices; achieving a high standard for EHS stewardship while maintaining the independence of research and teaching; educating the MIT community about the policy's values; and measuring and continuously improving MIT's EHS performance.

The policy was developed by the ad hoc EHS subcommittee of MIT's Committee on EHS, which includes representatives of many departments, labs and centers (DLCs) as well as the Environmental Programs Office (EPO). The subcommittee is co-chaired by Alice Gast, vice president of research and associate provost, and Jamie Lewis Keith, managing director for environmental programs and risk management, and senior counsel. Professor David Litster was vice president and dean of research during the policy's development.

The new system, which will increase EHS accountability while keeping burdens to a minimum, will be flexible enough to be used by DLCs in many ways and in a variety of situations. Uniform standards will apply to all DLCs, both on campus and in facilities such as Lincoln Laboratory, Bates and Haystack. However, they will have a range of options from which to choose the approach that works best for them.

The system will include a direct link between the DLC personnel responsible for EHS requirements and professionals in the Institute's EHS Office. The reorganized EHS Office, now located in Building N52, has merged offices and services that were previously separate: the Environmental Medical Service, which included Industrial Hygiene, Biosafety and Radiation Protection; Safety; and Environmental Management (see MIT Tech Talk, July 12, 2000). A future supplement to MIT Tech Talk will provide more information about the EHS Office's vision and mission.

The EHS management system design process now includes nearly 100 faculty members, researchers and EHS professionals on the ad hoc subcommittee, working committees and project team. Each group is developing key components of the new system, including uniform training materials and baseline programs; EHS organizational structure in DLCs and centrally; self- and outside auditing; an MIT inventory of regulated and hazardous materials in DLCs; data systems; and an expanded and comprehensive web site. Another component is MIT's campus "green" initiative.

"This EHS management system will be an MIT system designed by our faculty, researchers, staff and EHS professionals," said William Van Schalkwyk, director for EHS programs in the EPO.

"I anticipate we'll be refining the system well into the next several years," said William P. Wohlfarth, chief project manager. "In the near term, however, we plan to continue and expand the collaboration with DLCs to refine the EHS organizational structure and put a training plan in place. The project has already benefited enormously from the participation of faculty members, researchers and DLC staff. It is critical that we continue and deepen this collaboration."

Members of the EPO, the EHS Office and the working committee will meet with representatives of all DLCs in the coming months to seek input and answer questions.

"To some extent, we're in a continuous testing mode as we develop our plans and begin to roll out this initiative. We intend to refine even the best ideas," said Wohlfarth, who previously led the Residential Fire Safety Systems Renewal Project and was the Department of Facilities' senior electrical engineer in utilities. "This is a journey that we hope others will join, because it makes sense and it is clearly in the best interests of MIT to meet regulatory standards and achieve best practices.

"We look forward to keeping the MIT community informed about our progress and invite people to reach us with any questions they may have," said Wohlfarth. He can be reached at or x2-EHSS (x2-3477). urbanists and as humanists, we can rest assured that cities will always be with us--New York and all the rest of them."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 13, 2002.

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