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March/April 2009

Conformity Assessment, Standards and Trade

An Interview with Ann Weeks of Underwriters Laboratories

UL’s vice president of global government affairs talks about UL, conformity assessment and the firm’s work in the context of today’s international trade environment.

What does Underwriters Laboratories consider when structuring a conformity assessment program outside the U.S.? How do various trade agreements and policies affect that work?

In the area of product safety, our approach to conformity assessment relies on a four-part process that we have used for more than 115 years. That approach includes consensus standards that set the baseline for product requirements; the actual testing and certification of a product prior to its arrival in the market; ongoing mandatory factory surveillance inspections where we go into a factory, inspect it and pull product from the production line to test for ongoing compliance; and purchasing a product in a retail outlet and testing it to make sure that what ends up in the marketplace actually complies.

That fundamental process for UL certification programs is the same whether it is in the United States or in other countries. We believe that our process balances the twin tensions of product safety interests and time-to-market concerns, allowing manufacturers to get their compliant product to market in a very cost-effective way. The process affords flexibility in modifying the number of ongoing follow-up inspections based on the product’s run rate or past noncompliances. Elements of the program may change, however, with respect to specific protocols where we are testing for compliance to another country’s requirements; UL tests and certifies not only to our own standards but also to other government requirements or other private sector requirements as requested by our customers.

Trade agreements and policies may affect that work with regard to whether we are able to provide the actual testing and certification services for companies that want to satisfy another country’s mandatory requirements.

The World Trade Organization Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement speaks to standards and certification issues, and there is a services schedule within WTO that covers testing services. The TBT Agreement outlines the various methods of conformity that governments can utilize based on their needs. In some cases, such as with Canada and Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the TBT Agreement requires these countries to permit U.S. certification organizations like UL to be accredited to conduct certification services for its mandatory requirements. The services schedule of the WTO includes a category for testing and analytical services; this schedule, however, has not often been used to date. In places where it has been used — for instance, in China’s WTO schedule — various stakeholders disagree about what the scope of those obligations entails.

How has access to the international markets changed over the last decade?

There are four points I would highlight.

First is the general rise in the development and expansion of mandatory conformity assessment schemes. In an effort to keep unsafe products out of their markets, developing countries and economies are developing schemes that require third-party or other types of certification for select sets of products. We see a lot of countries and regions working to ensure that they do not become the dumping ground for noncompliant products.

The second is the use of the IECEE CB scheme (International Electrotechnical Commission Worldwide System for Conformity Testing and Certification of Electrotechnical Equipment and Components). Generally, there has been increased use and participation by governments and organizations in the scheme itself. The scheme is intended for participating countries to recognize and accept test data within different product categories that will streamline certification requirements in a country.

The third point relates to how product safety is defined and what types of conformity assessment programs are needed and effective. When UL was founded 115 years ago, our focus was on fire, shock and casualty hazards. That was what we knew as the scope of product safety. However, that scope has expanded over time to include such things as environmental and health concerns, which are on the rise. This includes things like restricted substances.

The fourth is the emergence of area schemes that are intended to facilitate trade within a region. We see the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) community committing to harmonize their standards and certification requirements across regions and exploring how to reconcile the different levels of development and sophistication of individual member economies’ schemes within the region.

This effort in the ASEAN community generally encompasses electrical and electronic products, so the scope is fairly wide. The member economies wrestle with such questions as which standard do we use: a pre-existing member economy standard, an IEC or International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard or an alternative? What method of conformity should we require: self-declaration or third party or something else? Who do we allow to conduct the testing and certification? What type of market surveillance system do we need, and how can we make it cost-effective? How do we ensure that we have the right technical expertise?

What issues do you find impede or enhance market access?

Market access for a variety of products can be impeded by a particular country’s participation in the IECEE CB scheme. If a country does not participate in the electromagnetic compatibility program, then a UL customer cannot use the CB test report we prepared to streamline its product’s acceptance in that country. Instead, the company may have to have the same, or similar, tests performed again by an entity recognized by the country’s government. And the nonparticipating country’s government may require in-country testing.

Another issue concerns which entities are accredited to do testing and certification for a given country or region’s mandatory marks. For example, in 2007 UL became accredited for issuing the NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) Mark under Mexico’s NAFTA obligations. UL has since been able to provide services directly to manufacturers who have products going into Mexico.

How have recently promulgated regulations such as RoHS (Restriction of the Use of CertainHazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment), EUP (energy use program) and other directives impacted your clients?

We have found that our clients are affected in how they manage the risk of noncompliance in the absence of full information. For example, in Europe there are still a number of member states who have not promulgated specific implementing regulations for RoHS; as a result they have been left to design their own approaches to figuring out how to comply with the general directive.

In addition, we find that across regions or countries, companies need to address requirements that may be different or that may conflict with each other. How does a company develop a program to streamline what it needs to do to satisfy all of them?

And then, in light of these requirements, how do you manage your complex supply chains given that an end product manufacturer may be sourcing from several hundred to several thousand different component suppliers? What kind of system do you put in place to manage that and to ensure consistency in approach and results?

In spite of the ambiguity and complexity, third parties like UL can help streamline the process from start to finish. Our technical work within ASTM and IEC committees gives us unique insight to common testing protocol threads and trends. We can design testing programs that integrate requirements from multiple sources. And we can leverage the surveillance parts of our four-part process to help companies manage ongoing compliance.

Do relatively new industrial and social concerns such as sustainability, chemical regulation, social responsibility and others affect your work?

Yes, these concerns do affect our work. It means making investments in safety science research about the flammability of furniture and nanotechnology’s impact on the safety performance of products, for example. It means contributing to standards development, whether within UL, other international standards developing organizations like ASTM International, IEC, or a particular country’s technical committee. Because a number of these programs are currently market driven, it means developing compliance solutions that provide confidence to the private sector stakeholders that rely on manufacturer claims.

Today’s environment places many demands on manufacturers. They have traditional fire, shock and casualty requirements; they have new environmental and health and safety requirements; and they have supply chain management issues. The value of a reputable third-party certification organization like UL can help with product safety concerns more than ever before.

Recently, UL launched a program called UL Environment that in part was in response to stakeholders wanting assurance that the environmental claims manufacturers are making are actually accurate. We have launched a new program to verify such claims with an initial focus on the building industry. There are a number of private programs looking to qualify buildings as being green, but there’s not a lot of work today in terms of how you go about qualifying the products that go into a building. This is a recent area of focus for us.

What sort of education does UL do so that governments understand third-party testing and certification systems? Why is it important?

A fundamental UL tenet is that public-private partnerships have proved to be extremely effective in the United States. UL has a lot of experience in helping governments in the development of their own programs. Some specific examples include working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology on educational programs for international regulators in particular areas. UL has collaborated with ASTM and other organizations on such programs because they are designed to educate regulators about the benefits of the U.S. standards and certification system and about best practices and pitfalls based on UL’s more than a century of experience in the United States.

As countries, especially developing countries, want to implement their own programs, we want to ensure that consistency and best practices and lessons learned from our experiences are applied. We want manufacturers to be able to get safe products to market as quickly as possible and to minimize potential discrepancies or overlap in the requirements.

For example, UL collaborates with the Chinese government on a variety of training programs. One such program involves training Chinese inspectors on how to apply UL standards. China applies export inspection requirements, and training about UL standards helps to minimize potential port holdups of UL-certified products. Such training is particularly important for priority electrical products within China’s memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

How do standards from ASTM International relate to third-party certification and testing? How does UL use ASTM standards in its work?

ASTM test methods are regularly invoked by UL product safety standards. For example, the seams in life jackets, covered by the UL 1123 standard on marine buoyant devices, are tested for strength in accordance with ASTM standards. Smoke detectors are tested for resistance to corrosion using ASTM standards.

Another common use occurs when ASTM standards are directly incorporated into our basis for certification; an example there would be chain saw protective products, which are certified to ASTM F1897, Specification for Leg Protection for Chain Saw Users.

In addition, UL’s primary designated engineers, senior engineers with the highest level of expertise in their given product areas, and other engineers with special subject matter expertise participate in different ASTM committees, including E05 on Fire Standards, F23 on Personal Protective Clothing and Equipment, and F40 on Declarable Substances in Materials.

UL’s mission is public safety — mitigating the loss of life and property through conducting research, developing standards, designing compliance programs, monitoring the marketplace and educating consumers. We fulfill that mission through a network of public-private partnerships in the United States and abroad. Our customers benefit from those efforts as we help them get their compliant products to market in a timely fashion while satisfying the confidence needs of others, whether regulators, retailers, original equipment manufacturers or other specifiers.

About UL
UL provides product safety and certification services to customers in 99 countries through a network of 64 laboratory, testing and certification facilities; it evaluates products and their parts in its work to promote safe living and work environments.

Using a procedure that provides for participation and review by a broad range of interests, UL has developed more than 1,000 standards for safety. The organization uses these standards, as well as those of other standards development organizations, in its programs.


Ann Weeks is vice president of global government affairs for Underwriters Laboratories in Washington, D.C. In this position she is responsible for directing, developing and implementing UL’s trade policy, regulatory and legislative strategies both domestically and abroad. She is currently a member of the board of directors of the International Consumer Product Health and Safety Organization and of the Public Affairs Council.