|When Disaster Strikes
In my editorial in last months issue on consumer product safety, I mentioned a certain kind of consumer confidence, an unspoken, unconscious confidence gained from purchasing within a marketplace that benefits from standardization. Whether consumers in most developed economies are aware of it or not, standardization creates a general expectation that products will be reasonably safe at least, and of a certain quality at best.
Truth be told, I transplanted that idea to the consumer product realm after reading the first draft of Stephen Forneris compelling feature about the U.S. CASA Act, which appears in this months issue. Passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law in 2002, the CASA Act provides, in part, for the training of building professionals in Latin America to enhance their understanding of building and housing codes and standards.
When I first heard about the provisions of this act, I had a rather academic understanding of the need for this kind of training in Latin America. We have all heard the terrible stories of lives lost in powerful earthquakes in the region, so it follows that it is a good thing to provide Latin American public and private sector building officials and contractors with training in the proper use of building codes and standards. But Forneris, who practices architecture in Ecuador as well as in the United States, gives very real examples of how a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose and use of codes and standards affects everything from the marketing of building products, to their purchase and use, to the safety of building inhabitants.
Take, for example, the Latin American cement manufacturer that touted its cement as exceeding an ASTM standard by 25 percent (with the added advantage that this allows builders to use 15 percent less of the product). This claims shortcomings may be obvious to users of ASTM cement standards, but imagine reading this without knowing the form and function of an ASTM standard. Marketers of services such as investment advice or medical care claim to exceed standards every day. Even though the standards to which they refer are abstract or qualitative, the fact is that we are all programmed to respond to the suggestion of the value added. Just as consumers can be hoodwinked by references to abstract standards, building contractors who dont work regularly with standards might be blind to the inherent absurdity of our cement manufacturers claim. Or, as Forneris writes more succinctly, Consumer confidence is critically linked to independently tested standards. A nation without a well-understood and controlled system of codes and standards becomes an anything goes environment, where everyone feels endlessly deceived.
Whether the false advertising this article describes is the result of intentional deception or poor understanding of a standards function, it is clear that when developers know the purpose of building codes and standards, lives can be saved, especially when disaster strikes.
Editor in Chief
Copyright 2003, ASTM