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Standards — How important are they?

Posted By David Clements, Monday, September 16, 2013

It seems that every time we turn the television on or check our mobile device we hear about a disaster: floods, tornadoes, wild fires and explosions. I recall, in 1992 while living in Nova Scotia, how an explosion at the Westray coal mine located in a small community of Plymouth, Nova Scotia, claimed the lives of 26 miners. The bodies of those miners were never recovered and remain deep within the mine. Justice Peter Richard in his report on the explosion and fire said, "The Westray story is a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity and neglect.”

His report also cited safety abuses, among them, inadequate ventilation design and maintenance to keep methane and coal dust at safe levels; methane detectors that were disconnected because of frequent alarms; procedures to "stonedust”1 coal to render it non-explosive, which were done sporadically, usually before inspections; and an "appalling lack of safety training and indoctrination” of miners.

On April 17, 2013, an ammonium nitrate explosion occurred at the West Fertilizer Company storage and distribution facility in the town of West, Texas, killing 15, injuring more than 160, and causing property damage in the millions. The authorities have yet to determine the cause.

With any major disaster, some are preventable and others are not. An investigation is conducted into the cause, reports are filed, and recommendations are made. In many cases, it is determined that either there was a lack of regulations, standards or compliance. What lessons are learned?

In June of this year I attended the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Annual Expo and Conference held in Chicago, Illinois, and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Annual Conference held in Calgary, Alberta. At these meetings, experts in their field voted on changes that will be incorporated in the next edition of the National Electrical Code (NEC) and in Canadian Electrical Code, Part 1 (CEC).

I witnessed the passion and commitment individuals representing their organizations had towards developing new requirements ensuring products and installations are safe from fire and shock hazards. The development of these standards is based on a balanced matrix of industry professionals and through a consensus process. IAEI technical committee members play a major role in this consensus process as they bring forth the inspectors’ perspective and knowledge.

These groups and individuals understand the value of standards. However, there are still cynics out there who are not part of the code development process that believe we are overregulated, and who feel that changes are made in the codes only to benefit manufacturers and that costs outweigh the safety benefits. We saw this when GFCIs were first introduced, and we are now seeing the same argument with AFCIs.

So do these cynics understand the value of standards — that standards help streamline process, and provide rules, guidelines and instructions for producing predetermined results? Without electrical standards would you feel safe in your home?

We have a responsibility and due diligence to ensure standards are developed and revised when problems, gaps and new products are identified. However, one cannot rely on standards alone to ensure that a product or installation is completely safe. It requires a systematic approach which includes four components: (1) applying current electrical standards (NEC) and (CEC); (2) installations performed by qualified installers; (3) third party certification of products; and (4) enforcement by qualified electrical inspectors.

So never underestimate the importance and tangible benefits of implementing the systematic approach.

William Blake, English poet, said, "What is now proven was once only imagined.” Hindsight is a wonderful thing but foresight is better, especially when it comes to saving life, or some pain!

1Stone dust (mining engineering) Inert dust spread on roadways in coal mines as a defense against the danger of coal-dust explosions; effective because the stone dust absorbs heat. McGraw-Hill Science & Technology Dictionary

Follow Dave on Twitter @DavidEClements

Read more by David Clements

Tags:  Editorial  September-October 2013 

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