Editorial Spring 2014: Guard dog or fox?
By Patrick Flannery
In my previous life as the editor of a magazine about woodworking I was at a trade show in Las Vegas where I struck up a conversation with a bored-looking person at a booth advertising emissions testing for volatile organic chemicals (VOC). Manufacturers of wood products have to prove their products emit less than the permitted threshold levels of VOCs before they are allowed to sell them in various jurisdictions, and the VOC limits imposed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) are North America’s strictest.
My conversation with the bored young woman revealed that her boss, the owner of said emissions-testing company, sat on the CARB. In fact, she proudly pointed out, he was instrumental in writing one of the newer and more controversial standards that my readers – makers of wood cabinets – were struggling to find ways to meet. “So,” I asked, feeling I must be misunderstanding something, “your boss writes the standards, then charges people to certify whether they meet them.” She agreed to this without a hint of irony. “Sounds like a good business,” I half-joked. “If things ever get slow, he can just write a tougher standard.” I think it was around this point she decided she didn’t like me very much, even as a temporary cure for boredom.
I was puzzled at the time to find that such an obvious conflict was tolerated, but it wasn’t long before I discovered, in the role I have now, that conflicts of this nature are by no means restricted to the wood industry. Test lab experts are common on most technical committees concerning the fenestration and architectural glass industries. Sometimes they are the sole representatives of the industry in the group. And the companies they work for (or own) are the very companies that will later certify your product as passing or failing the standards they write. Superficially, it looks like someone has handed the fox the keys to the henhouse.
Of course, there is a good reason for this state of affairs. Test lab engineers have the most knowledge both of the arcane standards documents and the testing protocols they demand. Frequently, they are involved in designing the tests themselves from basic principles of physics and chemistry. And they are motivated to donate the huge tracts of volunteer time needed for the committee work because such work pads their resumes and improves their value offering to clients by giving them inside knowledge of the standard. Even if we might agree it would be better to have a fabricator or two on these committees, few business owners or plant managers can find the time. In any event, there is little evidence that test lab engineers have been anything other than loyal guardians of the industry, working to create standards that improve windows and doors in Canada in a number of important ways.
Yet some dissatisfaction simmers. Mike Bruno of Everlast got up at Fenestration Canada’s last AGM to make an impassioned speech about the need for more fabricator involvement in the association’s technical activities. As if by magic, Fenestration Canada announced the creation of its Fabricator’s Council later that year. The association is reporting a strong start for the group and progress on a number of issues, of which technical review of codes and standards is only one. Let’s hope this group’s good work suffices to satisfy everyone that the keys to the henhouse are in good paws…er, hands.