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Articulos escogidos en Español
January 2005 Feature
Henry Oppermann has worked in weights and measures since 1971. He joined the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1976. He was named chief of the NIST Weights and Measures Division in April 2000.
NIST’s Role inWeights and Measures

As the national measurement institute for the United States, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is responsible for establishing and maintaining traceability of the U.S. national measurement standards to the base units of the International System of Units, or SI units. In general, NIST seeks to improve measurement capabilities needed for scientific research, technological advances, and manufacturing. Based on current demands, NIST is emphasizing research in measurement methods and improved technology capabilities for nanotechnology, biosystems and health care, homeland security, and information/knowledge management. In addition, as part of its measurement mission, the NIST Organic Act states that NIST may cooperate with the states to secure uniformity in weights and measures laws and methods of inspection. A uniform system of weights and measures is needed as the basis for commerce. While Congress has the power to fix the standards of weights and measures, the bulk of weights and measures regulatory authority rests with state and local government. Consequently, state and local weights and measures officials continually inspect devices, packages, and marketing practices to ensure “that equity may prevail” in the marketplace.

The Weights and Measures System

People and businesses buy and sell products every day, with most products weighed, measured, or sold in packages that declare the net content. “Weights and measures” is the term applied to the rules, regulations, and standards that govern the measurements of the quantities for those transactions to ensure equity in the marketplace. Based on the most recent available (1998) data, it is estimated that weights and measures regulations affect about $4.5 trillion of transactions, representing approximately 52 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. Food and beverage stores, which are a major focus of weights and measures oversight, had over $487 billion in sales in 2002, according to U.S. Census Bureau Economic Survey statistics.

The commercial measurement system is the buying and selling of goods and services based on weight, measure, or count. Weights and measures regulatory activities are part of this complex system, including scale and meter manufacturers, service companies, meat and produce processing plants, consumer product manufacturers, and retailers. Internationally, the term “legal metrology” is used to describe this infrastructure, as well as measurements for medical, environmental, acoustical, and safety purposes, among others.

Weights and measures rules, regulations, and standards may apply to product quality as well as to quantity. When consumers purchase gasoline, both the quantity indicated on the gas pump and the product grade (octane level) are regulated by weights and measures officials. When farmers sell grain to the local elevator, the payment is determined by the weight of the grain, but the price may be adjusted according to such quality characteristics as moisture, oil content, or starch content.

The objectives of legal metrology oversight include:

• Accuracy of commercial transactions;
• Compliance of commercial weighing and measuring devices with legal metrology requirements;
• Consumer protection;
• Fair competition among businesses;
• Facilitation of value comparisons by consumers; and
• Facilitation of commerce and international trade.

In most cases, the accuracy of transactions is taken for granted. However, maintaining the weights and measures infrastructure requires constant effort and the cooperation of experts from metrology laboratories and industry, retailers, and regulators, both nationally and internationally.

Standards, Test Procedures, and Regulatory Oversight

Weights and measures regulatory oversight serves to ensure the accuracy of the quantity and quality of millions of transactions on a daily basis. The accuracy of quantity statements on packages in supermarkets, of scales in delicatessens, of gas pumps in service stations, and of vehicle scales used to purchase or sell farm products, sand, and gravel all fall under the watchful eyes of weights and measures officials. An extensive infrastructure, usually invisible to the general public, supports the success of the U.S. weights and measures system. NIST works with the state weights and measures programs, scale and meter manufacturers, consumer product manufacturers, retailers, consumer agencies, and other federal agencies to develop and maintain the laws, regulations, standards, test procedures, and practices adopted and utilized throughout the commercial measurement system.

In 1905, NIST (then the National Bureau of Standards) created the National Conference on Weights and Measures as a forum to address problems and issues in the national commercial measurement system. The NCWM, now constituted as a private, non-profit organization, consists of representatives from industry and state and federal governments who work together with NIST to develop standards, test procedures, and model laws and regulations essential to the commercial measurement system.

NIST provides technical advisors to some NCWM committees. These committees annually develop and update the model laws and regulations and the specifications and performance requirements for commercial measurement devices, which state and local weights and measures authorities adopt as their requirements. NIST technical advisors must ensure that actions taken by the NCWM are consistent with national and international principles and practices, as well as federal regulations that preempt state and local laws and regulations. Furthermore, NIST technical advisors participate in the regional weights and measures association meetings to discuss and develop weights and measures current issues.

As a result of these changes, NIST annually publishes NIST Handbook 130, Uniform Laws and Regulations in the Areas of Legal Metrology and Engine Fuel Quality, the recommended model laws and regulations adopted by the NCWM at its annual meeting. The test procedures and requirements to verify the accuracy of the net content declarations on pre-packaged consumer products are published in NIST Handbook 133, Checking the Net Contents of Packaged Goods. NIST Handbook 44, Specifications, Tolerances, and Other Technical Requirements for Weighing and Measuring Devices, specifies the design, operation and performance requirements of commercial weighing and measuring devices. These devices include price-computing scales, scanner scales and self-service checkout systems in supermarkets, motor fuel dispensers in service stations, meters on trucks that deliver home fuel oil and liquefied petroleum gas, vehicle scales, and taximeters. The roughly 3,200 state and local weights and measures officials in the country use these documents to oversee the practices and transactions of the commercial measurement system. An estimated 50,000 private industry representatives also use these handbooks when placing devices into commercial service where they are authorized to do so by the states. The efforts, vigilance, and cooperation of industry, retailers, and state and federal officials make the U.S. weights and measures system successful.

The marketplace is continually changing. Consumer tastes and priorities have changed and consumer products and marketing techniques have changed accordingly. The technology of weighing and measuring instruments has improved and the instruments are integrated into business management systems. It is essential that weights and measures requirements provide consumer protection and promote fair competition without inhibiting technology, new products, and marketing practices. As the marketplace changes, weights and measures requirements and methods of oversight must also change to keep pace with evolving technology and marketing practices. NIST works with the NCWM, state and local weights and measures officials, and industry technical experts to ensure up-to-date requirements and the use of the best available technology.

Laboratory Metrology

In addition to working with the NCWM to set standards and guidelines for legal metrology, NIST provides calibration services to federal and state agencies, to industry, and to academia in a wide range of measurement disciplines to provide the foundation for the national measurement system and traceability to national standards. The state weights and measures laboratories are providers of critical measurement services across the country. In 2002, state weights and measures laboratories provided more than 375,000 calibrations for mass, volume, length, temperature, and frequency to state regulatory programs, to industry in support of research and manufacturing, and to scale and meter service companies. The state laboratories provide about 80 percent of their measurements in the area of mass calibration.

NIST’s Weights and Measures Division also provides numerous one- and two-week hands-on training seminars in laboratory metrology for state, federal, industry, and foreign metrologists at basic, intermediate, and advanced levels of metrology. Special emphasis is placed on mass and volume measurement, traceability, uncertainty calculations, and quality systems. In addition, WMD provides support and annual training through six regional metrology groups that conduct interlaboratory proficiency tests to evaluate the measurement results of participating state and industry laboratories.

International Legal Metrology

NIST also works to ensure the consistency of legal metrology standards used throughout the world. Industry has consolidated through mergers and acquisitions to create many multinational companies that market their products throughout the world. This global marketplace provides consumers with an abundance of products, but also creates intense competition among companies. Global competition dictates the need to reduce costs, consequently, international standards for weights and measures are a high priority for multinational companies so that their products are evaluated consistently from nation to nation. The International Organization of Legal Metrology, a treaty organization, develops needed International Recommendations (standards) for legal metrology. The scope of international legal metrology is much broader than the weights and measures activities performed by U.S. weights and measures officials: it includes measuring devices used in the medical field, environmental pollution measurement instruments, ionizing radiation measurement, breathalyzers (to measure blood alcohol levels), and net content requirements and procedures for pre-packaged consumer goods.

Because OIML is a treaty organization, the State Department is the official representative of the United States. However, the State Department has designated NIST as the U.S. technical representative to OIML. Hence, NIST represents the U.S. industry and weights and measures communities in OIML meetings. A key OIML objective is to develop legal metrology standards that will be adopted by all member countries with the objective of facilitating trade and eliminating technical barriers. To fulfill its OIML responsibilities, NIST establishes U.S. national working groups to develop or review draft OIML recommendations and documents. These working groups strive to ensure that OIML standards recognize U.S. technology and address the concerns of our market and culture. NCWM participation in the OIML process is critical because uniform weights and measures standards, test procedures, and enforcement practices facilitate commerce and act to align national weights and measures requirements with international legal metrology standards. Since exports are a major component of the U.S. economy and a major source of jobs in the country, the alignment of national and international legal metrology standards is a high priority for NIST.


NIST’s mission is to develop and promote measurement, standards, and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade, and improve the quality of life. The partnership in the commercial measurement system, where federal and state officials cooperate with the private sector to develop the standards needed for equity in commerce, has been a successful approach to unify practices within a system of independent state regulatory programs. Now the global marketplace demands that we develop international standards that draw from the best that we have to offer. //

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