Are Tweaks to the OSHA NRTL Program in the Works?

Jan. 21, 2015
Stakeholders Asking for Separation of Testing and Certification, a Single NRTL-Approved Logo, One Audit Accepted by All NRTLs and a Reduction in Number of Audit Visits Required per Year

Last fall, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) held a stakeholders’ meeting that attracted over 100 attendees from more than 50 organizations to discuss questions and options for changes to OSHA’s Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL) program.

The NRTL program is now over 25 years old and in need of updates to keep up with the changing demands of both manufacturers and employees, so OSHA is embarking on a multi-year plan to update and modernize the program. The stakeholders’ meeting was held to get input from vendors, customers and the NRTLs.

The proposed changes include aligning all the programs with ISO/IEC 17029 and ISO/IEC 17065 to improve clarity, better align with international standards and address certain policy gaps; align NRTL impartiality requirements with ISO IEC 17065; eliminate supplemental programs and roll them into core product testing and certification requirements; define minimum standards in individual staff qualification requirements, test data recording requirements and training requirements. Details of the update program can be found here.

The Vendor Point of View
Todd Lucey, past chairman of the Measurement, Controls and Automation Association (MCAA), presented a wish list from MCAA at the meeting. He says, “When the NRTL program was implemented, it was done to assure rigorous safety standards were being met while opening competition and addressing practices by the largest, best-known certification bodies. Its intentions were good, but as with all these efforts, the devil is in the details. As vendors, we were supposed to be able to go to any one of the testing and certification bodies and get the best price and the best service we could. But it doesn’t quite work out that way.”

What happens, he explains, is that the largest, best-known certification bodies—UL and Factory Mutual—still hold something of a hammer lock on the process if for no other reason than that they are so well-known.  “Under the OSHA NRTL program, we as vendors have the right to go to any certification body we want, but the gotcha is that the UL and FM brands are very strong in the marketplace. People often specify them.”

Lucey admits that part of the problem is education. “We have to educate our customers to specify correctly,” he says.

But the other problem is that the certification is a two-tier process. Individual products, say flowmeters, can be certified by one NRTL, but a larger system of which that flowmeter is a part may have to be certified by another NRTL if that’s what the customer has specified. “When, say, UL or FM inspectors show up at a site and see that parts of the system are certified by a different NRTL, they refuse to certify the overall system. This doesn’t happen always, but a lot of the time it does. Therefore, we have to go get another certification for the same product that is already certified by another NRTL.”

What this means is that the customer then has to have the individual parts recertified by a second NRTL, a process that can take many months and cost upwards of six figures.

A Common Mark
The solution that MCAA is hoping for is a common certification mark that would identify a device as NRTL-certified, regardless of which NRTL did the testing.

“Ideally we would like a simple ‘NRTL’ stamp instead of the certification body’s mark, as is done in Europe today,” says Lucey. “This would help us in educating the customer base. However, we do understand the need for each NRTL to build its own brand and would at least like to achieve a common mark of ‘NRTL Approved or Certified’ by FM or UL or CSA, etc.
In the future, our customers would ultimately like one single mark for a product going anywhere in the world. This means we must standardize our global approval and testing systems. These actions are being taken by the efforts of IECeX initiatives.”

A Separate System
Another improvement MCAA would like to see, says Lucey, is to separate testing and certification.

As the system works now, each NRTL is certified by OSHA as a testing body and/or a certification body, depending on its capabilities. The testing NRTL tests and reviews designs to assure that the product meets hazardous locations approval (e.g., Class I, Div. 1).

“The certification body is ultimately the company that stamps its logo on the vendor’s  nameplate, confirming that the product is safe; therefore, it assumes some risk by doing so,” says Lucey. “What we are requesting is that any testing NRTL’s results should be recognized and accepted by any certification NRTL for final approval. The idea is that any approved testing NRTL is conducting all of the same tests, which would be mandated by OSHA, and therefore [its results] should be accepted as complete and safe by any certification body. In general, the practice by the two large NRTLs is that they will not recognize testing by another NRTL and will do all the tests and review again before they certify.”

It’s not that vendors dislike the UL and FM brands, says Lucey. But time and cost factor in. Because UL and FM are so well-known, they have a large backlog of work. “It can take up to a year to get testing done by UL or FM. The other labs can get it done in three to four months. OSHA allows this, but FM and UL refuse to use other testing results.”

The Audit Schedule
Auditing approval is another piece of the puzzle. Under the current rules, every facility of a manufacturer that makes a particular part has to have an unannounced audit four times a year for every product produced to ensure that production standards are met. Add the double audits required because some NRTLs don’t recognize the work of others, and you can have up to a visit a week all year long, says Lucey.

“That doesn’t make the products any safer,” he adds. “It just adds to the cost.”

The European model has its appeal. “In Europe, you can use one NRTL for testing, another for certification and another for auditing. Everybody accepts everybody else’s results,” Lucey says.

OSHA is considering requiring only one unannounced audit a year, and in some cases, moving it to one every two years.    

The advantage to these changes comes in the form of easing costs and time-to-market—a crucial factor for companies with U.S. factories who must face competition from overseas suppliers who can get approvals in much less time. “All that cost burden and time-to-market cost is ultimately reflected in the product and is passed on to the customers,” says Lucey. "If we can find a way to ease the burden by changing the regulations, our customers will also benefit. It allows them to use more products related to plant safety. As it stands now, customers may decide to cut back on safety because of the cost.”

An Uphill Battle
MCAA may be facing an uphill battle to get these reforms. In addition to the opposition of some of the testing and certification organizations, the realities of government present a barrier. Government rule changes take time and are subject to the scrutiny of lawyers, turf battles between departments and agencies, changes in political fortune and the inherent unwillingness of bureaucrats to rock the boat.

Lucey admits, “We [MCAA] have all the key suppliers, about 130, that are united to get changes made. However, customers are relying on us as suppliers to get this issue addressed, as they don't have a strong opinion one way or the other unless or until they have a problem. Many of the other NRTLs are supporters behind the scenes to open up competition, but also have to support the overall NRTL program from OSHA, so their support tends to be a bit softer.”

OSHA itself is considering changes, but wants to be careful not to create enemies or rock the boat. “Sometimes they can be slow-moving to the point where it feels like they just hope the issue goes away. We do feel good that OSHA is now listening and is open to suggestions,” Lucey says.

The most optimistic time frame for changes such as MCAA would like to see is three to four years. A decade might be more likely.              

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