Mel DeGregorio, the owner of GreenUp Academy and GreenUp Consultants, has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in chemical engineering. She also is an internationally accredited third-party lead auditor by Exemplar Global for ISO 14001, ISO 45001, ISO 9001, OHSAS, RC 14001, and environmental, health, and safety (EHS) regulatory compliance audits.
She has about 18 years of experience in the EHS and manufacturing world. In addition to her role as a consultant, lead auditor, and lead facilitator at GreenUp, she was a corporate EHS manager for a Tyco International division, air pollution control engineer at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and production resource/environmental coordinator at Frito-Lay.
Mel is the founder of GreenUp Consultants (2008) and GreenUp Academy (2016), which are both housed under GreenUp Holdings as of 2018.
In this profile, we talked with her about environmental management system (EMS) auditing, why remote auditing is here to stay, and the key pieces of advice she would offer to professionals who are new to the field.
EXEMPLAR GLOBAL: Tell me about your background and how you found your way to auditing.
MEL DEGREGORIO: I had two great passions in my life: volleyball, which I have played for more than 25 years, and horseback riding. The problem was, though, that I was too short for volleyball to become an international player and too tall for being a horse jockey! While I was thinking and hoping that I have got to be good for something (laughter), my delightful thermodynamics course in college was very subtly forcing me to re-evaluate my life choices every week.
In the meantime, I happened to take an environmental elective course, fell in love with it, and I continued to take more and more similar courses after that. I passed them all with flying colors without any efforts. This was it for me, I had found my passion!
After obtaining my master’s degree in chemical engineering, I held numerous positions, which gave me the chance to see all sides of the EHS world. Finally, I decided to become an entrepreneur and established GreenUp Consultants in 2008. Shortly after that, I became an internationally accredited lead auditor by Exemplar Global on EHS management systems and regulatory compliance schemes. Since then, GreenUp Consultants, with the addition of GreenUp Academy, has been helping its clients through EHS regulatory and management system audits, EHS consulting, and training.
EG: With the high-level structure now in place throughout the major ISO standards, do you feel that there’s a tendency to look at all management systems in a similar way when you’re auditing? Obviously, there are many differences when looking at an environmental management system vs. a quality management system.
MD: Sure. Well, the framework, as you say, is going to be more or less the same when you look at ISO standards. The main difference with an EMS is the fact that environmental regulations are a part of it also. So, if you want to implement ISO 14001, in addition to conforming to the standard itself, the organization needs to identify all applicable legal and other requirements to their facility. Where it becomes difficult is if you don’t have an environmental regulatory background, this could become a burden and frustrating very quickly. In most cases, each state has its own environmental regulations whether regarding waste, chemicals, water, air, etc. When you don’t know what you don’t know, it makes it a lot harder to move forward. That, I would say, is where environmental management is a little different. From the management systems standpoint, within the framework, you still have to have an environmental policy vs. quality policy, you have to train your people, you have to do your audits, etc. Much of that is the same.
EG: There are many people in the Exemplar Global audience who are devotees of training. Talk to me about some of what you’ve learned from training courses in your career, and how they have affected your career development.
MD: Training is very important, obviously! I love high-quality training, especially if it’s a little bit entertaining, too! A lot of this information can be dry in nature, so if a good trainer can liven it up a little, that’s great. You don’t want anybody to feel like they want to jump out of their skin during your training! (laughter) Having said that, training in this field can be challenging but really valuable in your career. When I first got my lead auditor training in ISO 14001 about 12 years ago, it was a 40-hour course. I felt like I graduated from like three different colleges! By the time I got done with that training, I was exhausted… I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, what just happened?” It was an incredible training that opened up a whole different world for me. It made me love management systems even more in the environmental area.
Overall, I want to emphasize that training is very important as an auditor. It is crucial that you stay current with the upcoming and ongoing trends, changing standards, and updated regulations. You want to add value to your clients’ business in addition to auditing. One important subject to remember is that you cannot tell an auditee how to fix their gaps and nonconformities, but without naming names, you can always share best practices that you have observed in similar circumstances. Whether they take it or leave it is up to them, but this is where you can bring a lot of value to the table. To be able to do that, in addition to having experience, you need to have the proper training and you need to stay current within your auditing schemes.
EG: COVID and the rapid increase of online training, as well as remote auditing, are all going hand-in-hand right now. Do you think some of those changes caused by technology and the pandemic are here to stay?
MD: I really do think so. Due to COVID, we can’t travel the way we used to for auditing, and we can’t have students take training in person.
In terms of auditing, there is resistance from some clients to switch to that platform, mainly due to unfamiliarity and uncertainty. It’s a big change and many auditees still aren’t completely sure about its effectiveness. I completely understand that adapting to change could be difficult sometimes. However, I honestly believe that as long as you plan the audit accordingly, you coordinate with the facility prior to the audit, you discuss the logistics of document review, the virtual site tours, etc., remote audits are really very effective. Here are a few reasons why:
- No disruptions for the auditor due to circumstances at the facility
- Audits can be planned in segments (two days one week another day the following week, etc.) vs. being on site on consecutive days
- Since everything will be scheduled more precisely, the time will be used more effectively also, which works for both parties
- There are no travel costs to the company and it’s super-convenient for the auditor as well; they don’t have to worry about catching the next plane or trying to finish their report on the plane
So, in my opinion, I think that remote auditing is here to stay, because people are seeing the benefits of it in so many different aspects. I have to emphasize, though, that it needs to be planned effectively and executed well from a technological standpoint.
EG: So, just to clarify, the auditees DON’T like it? They prefer the in-person audit?
MD: Initially, I’ve observed a resistance to it because they were so used to having the auditors on site. There were some concerns to make sure that they were going to get what they were paying for, and I don’t blame them! A remote audit is completely different, because you’re not there in person, and sometimes in-person human interaction is irreplaceable. I totally get it! However, I’ve conducted many remote audits now, and after the auditee receives the report, they will often say, “This remote audit turned out to be way more effective than on site ones.”
Sometimes, when you are on site as an auditor, everyone is waiting on you. When you do the audit remotely, you can schedule certain times and say, “OK, these two hours I’m going to be reviewing your documents that you sent me and then, let’s schedule this videoconference after two hours so I can ask my questions.”
You can also plan the audit in segments. For example, if it’s a three-day audit, you can do one day this week, one day next week, and one day the week after. You don’t have this luxury when you travel to the site. I once traveled to Seattle for only a one-day audit! I live in Florida! It was lovely, don’t get me wrong… I hadn’t been to Seattle before, so it was nice to see. Still, for one day, it was brutal! If for example, it’s a two-day on-site audit, as the auditor I can’t say, “Oh, let’s do this in segments, I’ll come back next week.” When you do remote audits, however, both parties have this flexibility.
EG: So if I’m understanding you correctly, you think this new way of doing audits IS pretty much here to stay, at least to some degree.
MD: Yes, I really think so.
EG: From what you’ve seen with remote auditing, are there particular segments or clients where you try your best, but through no fault of yours or the auditee, the process ends up really being suboptimized? By which I mean, are there times where the client would prefer to get back to the way that you always done it, where you go on site and get your boots on the ground?
MD: Honestly, no! I’m totally, 100-percent comfortable, and I make sure that the clients are, too. I like remote audits now much better than on-site ones. The only disadvantage is that, throughout the years, you develop great relationships with your clients just from being able to see them in person. That’s a personal preference, of course, not a professional necessity. From a professional standpoint, in terms of executing the auditing project, no, there really aren’t any issues. Also, like in anything, cost is a factor, right? Travel can be costly, especially if the organization has more than one auditor on the project. Even aside from the cost, given effective planning and the capability of applying the technology properly to conduct site tours, video conference calls, and things like that, remote audits are really more convenient and much better for both parties.
EG: There are a lot of people getting into auditing as a career because it is a good field for those with technical backgrounds. For professionals in their first couple of years doing this work, what advice would you give them going forward? What has worked for you as you have developed your career?
MD: Auditing is great. Not that I am biased or anything (laughter), but I love it! Here is what I would tell people:
- Always look for ways to improve yourself; that’s very important.
- Audit to the requirements, not to your expectations or to your personal opinions.
- Always, always maintain objectivity and focus on the objective evidence.
- Listen to the auditee when you get challenged, and don’t make it an ego issue. It’s OK to get challenged. Just explain your findings, and if they bring in additional objective evidence, review them. If they make a good case, it’s OK to drop the nonconformity; it doesn’t make you any less of an auditor.
- Be sure to watch the time, especially for new auditors. It’s so easy to lose track of time. You have to follow the audit schedule properly, because you have only a certain amount of time—you can’t keep the auditee until midnight so you can finish the audit!
- Don’t take anything personally.
- Develop effective soft people skills.
- Develop excellent verbal and written communication skills.
- Maintain professionalism at all times. There will be some amazing times, but there will also be some difficult times. You must maintain professionalism, and respond accordingly to the challenges, requests, questions, etc.
- Always think about how you can help the client while focusing on the audit scope and purpose.
- Finally, and again, most important of all, always improve your ways and develop yourself.