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Interview

Interview with Joan Walsh Cassedy
Executive Director,
American Council of Independent Laboratories

The independent laboratories that ensure compliance with standards are as caught up as any sector in the tides of global trade. Joan Walsh Cassedy, who accepted the position of executive director of the American Council of Independent Laboratories in the fall of 1999, talks with SN about the Council and the issues her constituents face.

Please describe how the American Council of Independent Laboratories serves the international community of independent laboratories.

We do that on many levels. First, we lead by example. Our members ascribe to our mission and values and in that sense we are worldwide leaders advancing the interests of the testing laboratory. We also actively participate in the international community through our participation in government initiatives and related organizations. ACIL is represented on the Department of Commerce’s Industry Functional Advisory Committee on Standards and Trade and participates in the mutual recognition agreement [MRA] development process, by working with the trade representatives’ office in establishing these MRAs. We are also very active with the International Laboratory Accreditation Conference [ILAC], the Union Internationale de Laboratoires Independents [UILI], and sister organizations such as the Canadian Council of Independent Laboratories, as well.

Like most trade associations, we have a host of tangible, bottom-line benefits. But there are many intangible aspects of ACIL I’ve come to appreciate since I’ve come on board. One of the things I first learned when I arrived last fall is that ACIL has this wonderful tradition, going back 63 years, of sharing among its members. That’s something you can’t quantify. But the anecdotal stories I hear from members when I ask them, “What has ACIL meant to you?” are about the opportunities of learning from other people who are in the industry. Perhaps these other members are in completely different lines of testing—but the fundamentals of laboratory quality and data quality and growing a business are the same, and members have been able to share among each other in ways that are really extraordinary.

In one case a member had a seasonal downturn and another member in a different region of the country had an unexpected increase in business at the same time, so the two member labs actually shared staff. It helped the one company when they needed staff, and helped the other not lose a valuable member of its staff because of this seasonal downturn. In another case, a member learned through the ACIL-member listserver that a major piece of equipment that he had been considering purchasing was being sold by another member. He visited that member, checked out the equipment, and purchased it for 20 cents on the dollar. There’s a bottom-line benefit.

What role do standards play in the laboratory community?

The role of standards is major and fundamental because almost all of the laboratories are testing to recognized consensus standards. This is fundamental to the work that our laboratories do. These standards are also fundamental to international trade in setting the understanding and acceptance of the products and services that are being traded internationally. Standards make that possible.

A study commissioned by Congress referred to the U.S. laboratory accreditation system as an “impediment to world trade.” What are your views on this statement? Are there ways the system discourages freer trade between the United States and other nations?

Some people may say the U.S. accreditation system is an impediment to world trade, but others would say it’s the building block of world trade for the United States. There are many pluses to the U.S. accreditation system. We are the world leaders in public safety and health for good reason. So although some people are very quick to be harsh on our system, perhaps we should look beyond that at the bottom line, and the bottom line is public health and safety. And there the United States is undoubtedly a leader.

What we’re concerned about is mutual recognition—how can the accreditation process be applied so that all parties are comfortable with the products that are coming in? ACIL is a great supporter of the accreditation process. We are also great supporters of the National Cooperation for Laboratory Accreditation (NACLA) and its goal of streamlining the process. I think that the role that U.S. accreditation plays in world trade is by no means as simple as the statement in that report.

We do recognize that some accreditors are quick to establish new accreditation programs, while perhaps not properly evaluating whether existing programs could be adapted or amended to apply. One of the great problems is the proliferation of programs. And that places a constraint on the laboratories in terms of, of course cost, but also competitiveness. So the process needs to be simplified.

ACIL, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) helped establish NACLA, the National Cooperation for Laboratory Accreditation, to enhance the U.S. accreditation system. How does ACIL anticipate NACLA will make advances in the system?

There are some things NACLA can do to advance the sense of partnership between the labs and the accreditation bodies. And that in itself would be a major step forward. I don’t get the sense that the labs are seen as the “customers” of the accreditation bodies. And we need to see a greater partnership among all the entities involved—and that’s what NACLA has been trying to achieve. I do know that some people wish there would be greater progress with NACLA in a short time. But there are so many entities to bring together. I think they’ve made some really good progress this year. The signing of the MRA between NIST and NACLA in July was a major achievement that will go a long way to strengthen the process.

Right now, Canada and Mexico have observer status within NACLA, but the goal is to bring some cohesion to the North American system, and that would be a wonderful accomplishment.

There has been a major buy-up of smaller labs by larger ones such as Intertek Testing, Cooperweld, and SGS, that have many branches worldwide. What is the reason for this? Will smaller labs be able to survive the competition from these large lab conglomerates?

The reason for the buy-up of the labs is that people are perceiving a growing market for independent testing. And that of course places a value on those who can provide the testing. But there is a place for both the smaller labs and the larger laboratory companies that have many branches. The smaller labs can provide niche services. Frequently our smaller members are contracting services to the larger ones because the former provide a specialized area of testing, and it is more efficient for the larger lab to contract out than to maintain the specialized service on their own.

There’s a natural niche for the smaller labs. There always will be; they’re customer-driven, they’re relationship-driven. There are many intangible values that are part of the testing process—turnaround time, meeting deadlines, reliability—and people place a value on those attributes. Although larger labs can provide them, this is also where the smaller labs can compete. So there is a role for both the large companies and the smaller independent labs.

ACIL is involved in designating conformity assessment bodies in the U.S. to support Mutual Recognition Agreements in place with the European Union, the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC), and the Conference on Inter-American Telecommunications (CITEL). How does this work affect the use of standards in regard to exporting goods to these regions?

That really speaks to the need for harmonization of national and regional standards, or at least mutual recognition of the technical equivalence of these standards. Manufacturers worldwide continue to look for one-test/one-standard/accepted worldwide, and that is what is driving harmonization. These are all components of this movement toward harmonization.

Does ACIL, based in Washington, D.C., advocate for American independent labs in the nation’s capital? If so, what are the concerns you take to Capitol Hill?

We have a wide array of activities. I should also back up and say it’s not just Capitol Hill where we work. In many cases, we are much more involved on the regulatory side of government than we are on Capitol Hill. Regulatory issues affect our members every day. There are some very clear-cut examples on the legislative side, for example, the FAIR Act, which seeks to ensure that the services that should be contracted out by government are. And ACIL was without doubt a leader in having the FAIR Act implemented.

But we are involved in almost every regulatory agency in Washington. When you think of the array of activities we have among the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and so on—it’s astonishing.

Issues we face on the Capitol Hill side are frequently generic to small business in general. And there we serve on coalitions with other organizations to reinforce the small business issues, the unfair competition issues, the privatization and outsourcing issues, and we operate through groups like the Small Business Legislative Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other organizations to get our point across there.

In a related matter, do you find the concerns of your American member labs to be different from those of multinational or strictly overseas labs? If so, how do you deal with that difference?

We do have international members, and it’s an interesting subject. We have a member in Russia, for example, that is seeking our assistance in fostering the system of independent laboratories and adherence to standards in Russia. Many of our members from outside the United States look at the U.S. system; they’re interested in learning from the U.S. members—from our business practices in terms of the fundamentals of growing a business. They may have different perspectives in terms of their host-country standards, but the fundamentals of testing, data quality, and the requirements for growing a business are common around the world. So those are part of what ACIL incorporates in everything we do. Our mission is to enhance our members’ success by providing education, advocacy, service, and mutual support. That cuts across all borders. And we promote quality, ethics, and objectivity and free enterprise—and again, they transcend all borders.

What are ACIL’s plans for serving its constituency in the 21st century?

One of our main short-term goals is improving the technology of sharing ACIL among the members and then to the greater community. And within the next year, we’ll be seeing some major new programs for ACIL that will really leap-frog us in that area. That also goes to the point of serving our international members who can then benefit more directly and more quickly from what ACIL has to offer.

We’re also reinvigorating the ACIL Institute, now called the Independent Laboratories Institute, which is a training vehicle for our members and the broader laboratory community. The various sections of ACIL (Civil Engineering, Conformity Assessment, Environmental Sciences, Microbiology and Analytical Chemistry, and Life Sciences/Site Management Organizations) are going to determine the areas of training that are necessary, then drive those areas. We started out with one project in the telecommunication certification bodies area. We’ve produced a series of video training courses, and we’re also offering a computer-based training module on Federal Communications Commission rules. This is just the start, and we’ll be offering other products in other areas as those segments of industry identify training needs for the laboratory community.

My personal goal is to communicate the value of ACIL’s mission and core values to encourage the greater laboratory community to understand the commonality of issues among all disciplines of testing. By addressing these issues together, the industry can advance and grow in the 21st century. //

Copyright 2000, ASTM

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