Safety Standards: What Are We Paying For?

Recently I replaced an old extrusion press controller system with a new PLC. Being a good engineer, I had the customer contact the local city engineering department. The inspector said that since this machine never stood a chance of being UL certified, it would need to be certified by an independent compliance company. The inspector found few discrepancies, but his report frequently referred to UL508 and UL508A as the authority for items that needed to be fixed.

I did a web search for these standards and quickly discovered I would have to pay about $450 apiece to obtain the documents that contained these two standards.

UL508 is in its 17th edition as of January 1999, and contains revisions through July 2005. UL508A is a first edition, dated April 2001, and also includes revisions through July 2005. UL508 contains 208 pages of actual information, and UL508A is 160 pages.

I read both standards from cover to cover. When I finished, one thought kept going through my head: "Why am I paying so much for these documents?" There were about two dozen pages between both of these documents that actually pertained to my specific situation.

I have two issues with this. First, a significant portion of these standards don't contain information relevant to a particular application. This has been going on for decades but never seems to get addressed. Second, standards companies still charge as if you were getting an actual book, but they are delivering PDF files. I had to tell my customer I paid $900 for two PDF files to find which paragraph referenced the required signage.

It's fair for a company to recoup its research costs, but hasn't UL been able to amortize their initial costs for a safety standards book by the time the 17th edition appears? Spare me the "continuing research" argument. The physics of electrical panel safety does not change that often.

And why can't standards companies also provide more application-focused material? Is it that hard to extract the standards requirements for retrofitting a machine?

There must be a less expensive way for the engineering consumer to have access to specific, relevant information.

To read more on this topic, read Why Is Safety Information So Pricey?

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  • <p>I could not agree more. I'm an electrical engineer for a packaging machinery builder. Not only are the documents absurdly expensive, it is extremely difficult to find the information pertaining to the situation under investigation. It is not unusual for these standards to refer to other standards that are, again, absurdly expensive and difficult to navigate.</p> <p>It is my understanding that these standards are established so that the equipment is safer. People should be encouraged to use them. They should be readily available at a minimal cost. They should be written and organized so that they are easy to use.</p>

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  • <p>Well put Scott, but don't stop with UL. The IEC standard business is just as bad!</p> <p>How have we managed to get from a point where, for example, back in the early '80s the British standards were available on microfiche. OK, they were hard to access. You had to get access to a reader but you only paid a one-off license fee.</p> <p>But all of the information was available, and it was worth seeking out.</p> <p>Now we have a the absurd “improvementâ€? brought by the Internet, which is easy to access but difficult to navigate, information lottery where you pay exorbitant amounts for wordy documents that fail to provide value!</p> <p>This is nonsense!</p>

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  • <p>Imagine how safety would improve if standards were avaliable for little or no cost. The government can subsidize corn, but not safety. Why do we pay for an entire document when we only need a small portion?</p>

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  • <p>I can't begin to estimate the time expended and money I've wasted chasing standards, only to find one paragraph or less that had relevance to the work I was doing. This is an issue of significance to any engineer trying to protect himself and his business.</p> <p>As to standards organizations, I've often felt some of them could significantly cut costs if they would stop sending mail pushing their wares. Think of the printing and postage that's wasted. I order standards when I need them. All the junk mail goes to the recycle bin.</p>

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  • <p>The problem has international character. In Ukraine, to receive the standard is even more difficult. Even having paid, it is possible to run into the Internet of swindlers. The position of the state in a question of safety standards is not clear. The safety standards certainly should be public and free. They are important not only for the manufacturer, but also for a customer. Now, someone makes business on the public interests paid by our taxes. Electronic form standards (pdf file) has more convenient possibilities for search than looking at hundreds of paper pages.</p>

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  • <p>UL is a not for profit organization. They are not a government agency. Local governments adopt regulations that require compliance with UL standards. So in that regard, users are forced to do business with UL. Nice arrangement if you can get it.</p> <p>UL charges what they need to stay in business. I would guess they make pretty good salaries. For government to subsidize publication of standards, it would only shift the cost from users to taxpayers, not to mention adding politics to the situation.</p> <p>As unpleasant as it is, I can't think any way to improve the situation.</p>

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  • <p>The inspector didn't act very professionally in my opinion. Our company paid an inspector three thousand dollars. When we asked for clarification the inspector opened the book and showed us the rules. When we asked for certain specific rules related to our equipment he copied them on the spot. If I had to deal with that inspector I would have discussed his attitude with the owner of the inspection company. In this case it was U.L.</p>

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  • <p>What I find more unfair is that UL and other organizations have no support or discussion forums or groups where everybody is able to discuss and interpret these standards. UL has the UL University, but the only way you can find information is by paying for training.</p>

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