Standardisation: Are our regulations being privatised by the back door?
How do you think people would react if the Government passed a law that said that our traffic laws would be decided by motoring organisations like the AA or RAC, or if the European Commission announced that all new regulations on food quality and hygiene would be determined by McDonalds?
Well actually something similar is already happening. Not only in Britain, but internationally, an important part of how things are being regulated is being passed on to manufacturers and suppliers.
It is called standardisation, the process of setting standards.There are currently over 20,000 British Standards, and a similar number of international ones. They cover everything from how to check the stickiness of adhesive tape to the specifications for making portland cement. Now this can be a very positive and helpful process that helps ensure quality and safety. Unfortunately the way it is done at the moment gives no guarantee of this and standard making is, more and more, controlled by vested interests.
British, European and international standards are increasingly used instead of regulation. In the case of machinery safety, a lot of standards have been given special status by the European Commission as being compliant with requirements. In areas such as safety clothing, no materials can be imported legally unless they are certified as meeting various standards.
National governments are also increasingly seeing standards as being an alternative to regulation. There is talk, for instance, of a new standard on stress. We don’t need a new standard, we need proper legislation backed up with enforcement.
Another problem is that these standards are developed by standards committees that are usually dominated by industry. So a standard on any product will mainly have manufactures on the committee developing them, possibly supported by consultants or academics. An example is the standard on health and safety which is being developed by the international body ISO. 54 countries are involved and each are entitled to three delegates, yet only three of them have actually got a workers representatives as part of their delegation. Most of the rest are a mix of consultants, with some representatives from government agencies and a few employers.
A new standard on outsourcing saw the British input coming from AEGON, BP, CapitalOne, DWF, Gartner, IBM, the National Outsourcing Association and PwC. This means that the process is not always about raising standards but instead reflects the vested interest of those that set the standards.
Even the standards bodies have a conflict because they make most of their money by providing certification to those that use the standards, so they are most likely to develop ones that will make them money and develop them in a way that is easiest to certify. Hence, in the current development of the health and safety standard, ISO have insisted that the standard use the same wording as other management standards, however inappropriate.
And of course, unlike regulations, standards come at a price. They are not available for free on the web. The most recent one to be published (on fire sprinklers) costs £192, and many cost considerably more. This means that when an employer says that they are complying with the correct standard, it is difficult for a union health and safety representative to check.
That is not to say that standards are a bad thing. Developed properly they could certainly help raise quality, and safety. But for that to happen we need the system to change. All standards with a health and safety component should be available free. Standards and technical committees should always have appropriate membership by representatives of consumer groups, unions or other parties. Manufacturers, consultants and others with a strong financial interest should always be in a minority. The standard making process should be overhauled and simplified.
We should also not be developing standards in areas that are the territory of regulators, for example HSE, or representative international bodies like ILO. That includes health and safety management systems, stress, or anything related to exposure levels.
For more about the problems with standard-setting you can read my article in the new issue of Hazards magazine.