Facilitating harmonization to save lives

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The pace of change across all sectors is accelerating. The number of new products entering the marketplace is increasing; production, distribution and the supply chain are now global; new trade agreements aimed at streamlining and opening trade are all having an impact on which products are sold as well as when and how they gain market access.

All of these things are good for consumers and manufacturers. However, despite positive changes, innovation in the personal flotation device (PFD) and life jacket sectors in Canada and the United States have been inhibited by:

  • differences in standards across markets;
  • varied approval requirements by national regulators; and
  • unique label and point of sale requirements for products sold in the U.S. versus Canada.

In part, these challenges have been due to not only the underlying standards used to manufacture and approve products but the process by which these standards have been developed and maintained.

Canada and the U.S. share the world’s largest bilateral trade relationship, with total merchandise trade exceeding $500 billion annually. Notwithstanding positive changes in the marketplace to facilitate and expand this trading relationship, standards development processes have not changed significantly over time.

Although international standards continue to be developed through international standards organizations, such as ISO, national standards bodies and standards development organizations (SDOs) continue to operate mainly within their national borders (their domestic markets) serving the specific needs of their local country, although harmonization efforts have expanded greatly in recent years. Although this approach has served the market well in the past, new approaches and innovations in standards development are required to respond to the new market realities and to facilitate market access.

As markets become more global and the supply chains become more integrated, separate but parallel standards development processes undertaken on a national basis cease to support competitiveness, resulting in:

  • country-specific standards, developed by multiple SDOs with significant duplication of effort;
  • harmonization efforts being slow, cumbersome and unsupportive of innovation;
  • poor coordination between AHJs/Regulators, within & between countries, resulting in complexity and trade barriers;
  • a fragmented approach to standardization.

In January 2013, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) became accredited by the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) as a standards development organization for Canada, allowing UL to develop National Standards of Canada (NSCs) in addition to American National Standards (ANSs) under its accreditation with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). UL’s accreditation as an SDO for Canada has enabled UL to develop standards specifically for Canada, as well as, fully harmonized bi-national or joint standards for the U.S.-Canada marketplace, facilitating more efficient manufacturer access to both markets.

Figure 1

Traditional Standards Harmonization Process

Traditionally, the process to harmonize standards between Canada and the U.S. has involved coordination of separate technical committees attempting to harmonize requirements for both markets (see Figure 1). Under this process, a Technical Harmonization Committee (THC) would be created with members coming from corresponding Technical Committees (TCs) from each country. The process could be managed by participating SDOs from each country, and would normally include a chair of the THC that would come from industry with the support of a publication coordinator from one of the SDOs.

The THC would collaboratively work to propose harmonized requirements, which would be reviewed and balloted. Once complete, the harmonized requirements would be sent back to each SDO who would then undergo their national process for balloting and approval as national standards within their country. Should differences arise during the national process, amendments would be proposed back to the THC for consideration and resolution. Ultimately, this process would result in a harmonized set of requirements that would be published by each SDO within their respective countries.

Although this process has helped achieve harmonization between countries in the past, there are some challenges associated with this model of harmonization, including:

  • duplication of effort, given that the same basic process is repeated by each SDO and the THC;
  • a process that is potentially complex and lengthy given the number of people and separate processes that need to be managed;
  • the publishing of more than one standard with separate covers;
  • the potential for de-harmonization over time given that the process can be lengthy due to coordination between SDOs and national processes; and
  • a less resilient process that can quickly react to changes or innovations and identified safety issues.

In addition to an inefficient process for harmonization, this approach continues to support separate standards development processes in each country administered by separate SDOs, increasing the risk of divergence since those involved are not present to understand the specific discussions and rationale that lead to decisions made resulting in the potential for national differences between countries. As well, maintaining separate domestic TCs increases the risk of de-harmonization since separate people are sitting at separate tables discussing technical issues. Ultimately, the process remains fragmented and nationalistic.

Figure 2

Innovation in Standards Development – New Harmonization Possibilities

UL’s accreditation as an SDO in Canada created the possibility of a new harmonization process for standards between Canada and the U.S. It enabled harmonization using a single process (See Figure 2).

UL, as an accredited SDO in Canada and the U.S. can now facilitate harmonization using a single process administered by a single SDO using a joint bi-national Standards Technical Panel (STP) or Technical Committee. The Joint STP would develop a standard using its accredited procedures for each country. The process would use a traditional standards development process but would ensure that both Canadian and American requirements are met throughout the process. Appropriate stakeholders would be invited to participate and public review would be undertaken in each country.

This innovation in standards development will streamline the harmonization process by creating a single, simultaneous process for harmonized standards development. This will allow harmonization to be undertaken simultaneously at the time of original development of a standard, thereby cutting the time between the development of a standard in the U.S. or Canada and the harmonization or adoption of that standard in the other country. Moreover, using one committee versus two separate committees will also provide the ability for technical experts to collaborate on requirements, leading to fewer national differences. The result is greater harmonization achieved more efficiently.

Using a single process will result in the streamlining of resources, lowering standards development costs and reducing effort, resources and time. Since this new process involves a single STP, harmonization is easier to maintain. This approach not only facilitates greater harmonization of standards, but it also supports government and industry objectives of facilitating domestic and international trade and fostering technological innovation by providing market access for new devices into the United States and Canada simultaneously.

From an industry perspective, this process should result in reducing additional testing, lowering manufacturing costs with less retooling, and creating greater efficiencies for industry. Further benefits include greater innovation and, by facilitating first edition standards to be developed concurrently for both markets, allowing new technology quicker access, thereby reducing lags and stimulating innovation.

From a safety standpoint, updates to safety standards can occur at a quicker pace and concurrently for both countries, closing gaps in safety between Canada and the U.S. if an issue is identified.

Case Study: Life Jacket Industry

For the life jacket industry, this innovative process has proven to be invaluable. By transitioning the UL STP for life jackets from a U.S. technical committee to a single bi-national STP with the appropriate U.S. and Canadian stakeholders, this STP has within two years successfully achieved consensus on two joint Canada-U.S. standards. Not only have two joint standards been published, these standards have been based on international standards (ISO standards) with national differences and have been published simultaneously for both countries. For the first time ever, international harmonization will occur for both Canada and the U.S. concurrently.

The adoption of these standards will allow for greater innovation in the Canadian and U.S. markets for life jackets and personal flotation devices (PFDs), creating additional choices for users which should increase wear rates and decrease deaths associated with drowning. As well, through the publication of the joint Canada-U.S. standards, the same product (device) will be able to be sold and used in both Canada and the U.S. for the first time.

Since a single standard was developed, regulators were able to develop a joint label acceptable to both Transport Canada and the U.S. Coast Guard, facilitating streamlined approvals and allowing for lower certification and testing costs for producers. It also allows for greater harmonization with international standards—moving away from traditional prescriptive requirements towards more performance-based requirements—thereby allowing for greater innovative products to be offered and approved for use in the two countries.

It is important to note, however, that although the standards have been published, they have not yet been adopted into law by either the United States or Canadian appropriate regulators. At the writing of this article, the regulatory process had not yet been completed and the standards although published, remain voluntary until the adoption process is complete.

Evolution of Marking, Labeling and Point of Sale on Life Jackets

Figure 3As the life jacket standards within the United States and Canada evolve, so too should the message to the users of those devices. As one can imagine, changing a paradigm is not easily done and requires the dedication of many to fulfill the mission.

It was acknowledged during the standards harmonization effort that an opportunity may be missed to revisit the marking and labeling requirements so that the users of life jackets could be better educated on the intended uses and applications. Understanding the positive implications for revising the current marking, labeling and point of sale information of life jackets, various UL STP Task Groups and external focus groups were established to accomplish such a monumental task. These groups included participants from the United States, Canada and Europe. The composition of those participants comprised of federal and local regulatory bodies, user groups and associations, manufacturers, certification bodies, point of sale organizations, and special interest groups.

Marking and Labeling: Today

As shown in Figure 3, over the past few decades, the marking, labeling and point of sale information on life jackets have remained generally unchanged. The markings on a life jacket have been required to include all of the requisite text to be located together within a defined parameter. Information such as the USCG Type and Approval number, Third Party Certification Mark, Size, and various other warning and caution statements were specifically prescribed within the certification standard. This type of specificity limited the creativity of the manufacturers due to the footprint needed on the life jacket to include such information.

In addition to the information required to be printed on the life jacket, a “Think Safe Pamphlet” must be attached. The pamphlet includes information that educates the users on the different types of devices, how to properly fit a device, and other information that may further educate the user in regards to water safety. Although the material currently provided on life jackets and point of sale information is important and should be delivered to the user, it has been agreed that the current vehicle for delivery is in dire need of a facelift. The current markings are too wordy and, due to the amount of information required to be located on the label, the critical information on the device is lost.

Marking and Labeling: Future

Today’s world is visual with the need to grab a person’s attention quickly. Within that short duration of attention, the user must be drawn in and directed to the information that is important to them so that they make the right choice when purchasing and using a life jacket.

Figure 4The future marking and labeling on life jackets, as shown in Figure 4, intends to replace much of the wording of the current labels with icons. The labels will consist of three panels:

  1. Selection and Warnings Panel
  2. Certification and Approval Panel
  3. Care and Maintenance Panel

The Selection and Warnings Panel will include information such as the size of the device, performance information, intended use such as use with towed sports, and other additional warnings.

The Certification and Approval Panel will include the USCG Approval number, Third Party Certification Body Mark, manufacturer’s information and product model/style.

Finally, the Care and Maintenance Panel will include information pertaining to the service and maintenance of the life jacket.

One of the more significant revisions is the inclusion of the performance level and turning ability within the Selection and Warnings Panel. With the removal of the USCG Type system (e.g., Type I, II, III, etc.), the intent is to replace it with a performance level similar to the approach taken in Europe. As shown in Figure 4, the icon with the number 70 indicates that the device is a Level 70 performance device. In addition to the performance level, the new markings inform the user of the turning ability of the life jacket. The draft label indicates a device that has no turning ability. The amount of turning ability is translated to the user by one of the three turning indicators shown.

As marking and labels evolve, it was decided that the need for a more refined mechanism at the point of sale was needed. The current “Think Safe Pamphlet” has too many pages and is seldom read by the purchaser when buying the life jacket.

Similar to the resolution for life jacket labels, it was decided that using more icons and less wording on the point of sale information would aid the purchaser in obtaining the correct device for their activity. The current 16-page “Think Safe Pamphlet” is being replaced with a very simple two-sided placard as shown in Figure 5. The draft placard uses bright colors to attract the attention of the purchaser. It is being coined as the decoder ring for the new life jacket labels as the information it provides will allow the purchaser to compare the performance of one device to another. Based on the user’s activity and use environment, a sliding scale allows the purchaser to make an informed decision based on their perceived water environment. The aforementioned sliding scale informs the user that the water environment in which the purchaser primarily intends the life jacket to be used may impact the duration in which rescue could be available. For example, as the environment moves from near shore/calm waters to offshore/waves, the time to rescue may increase. With this information provided to the user and the point of sale, they can use this placard to determine which performance level device they should purchase.

Figure 5The draft placard will also include material relating to water safety facts, the descriptions of each design type (e.g., inherently buoyant, inflatable, hybrid, etc.), maintenance, warnings and approvals. One may question where the additional information within the current “Think Safe Pamphlet” going. Since much of the information is better suited after the point of sale, most of the information will be provided within the manufacturer’s user manuals or consumer education websites.

In conclusion, change can sometimes be difficult to accept, however with these changes, the goal has and will always remain the same – INCREASE THE WEAR RATES AND SAVE MORE LIVES. Allowing the user to make more sound decisions and choosing the right life jacket for their activity will hopefully aid in this mission.

It should be noted that the publication of the first two joint Canada-U.S. standards is a critical milestone in reaching the goal of facilitating trade across the border and the development of new innovative products. However, before these standards can be adopted, policy and regulatory changes must be made by Transport Canada and the U.S. Coast Guard.

At the time of the writing of this article, the adoption process had not been completed. In the meantime, both existing and new devices will be available in the marketplace. Given the nature of regulatory changes, it is expected that full transition to the new standards will take several years as manufacturers determine when they will have their product tested and certified to the new requirements. Notwithstanding the time required for full transition, the publication of the standards using the joint STP has enabled the transition and has reduced the time required for full transition by many months, or even years.


About the Authors

Chris P. James is the principal engineer at UL for the categories of Personal Flotation Devices, Immersion Suits, Personal Flotation Device Components, Protective Clothing and Equipment for Surface Water Operations, Internal Combustion Forklifts, Battery Powered Forklifts, Internal Combustion Powered Industrial Floor Cleaners, Battery Powered Industrial Floor Cleaners, Battery Operated Carts for Commercial Use, Marine Navigation Lights, Low Voltage Marine Lighting, Fire Apparatus (Fire Trucks), and Rescue Tools.

Through leadership, communication and technical competency, a few of his responsibilities are to drive global consistency, integrity and engineering quality in the development, maintenance and application of UL’s certification requirements and delivery of UL conformity assessment services.

He currently serves on various UL Standard Technical Panels, NFPA Technical Committees, and ISO Subcommittees. He is the current U.S. Technical Advisory Group (TAG) Vice Chair for ISO TC188/SC1, Small Craft.

Chris has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Business Administration within an emphasis in Organizational Leadership from Wilmington University.

Maria Iafano joined UL as director of UL Standards – Canada in September 2013. In this capacity, she represents UL Standards on various Canadian and International committees and works with U.S. and Canadian stakeholders to manage and develop UL’s standards development program in Canada and across North America. She also serves as chair of the Standards Technical Panel (STP) 1123, currently developing a variety of standards for marine safety devices and STP 2984, currently developing principles, guidance and a framework for regulators and organizations primarily responsible for the management of public risk.

Maria has over 18 years’ experience in regulatory, public safety oversight and government affairs working in various capacities within different ministries across the provincial government, private industry and non-governmental organizations.

She holds an Honours BA in International Relations, a Master’s Degree in International Affairs, focusing on trade policy and economics, a Masters Certificate in Marketing Communications Leadership, and Executive training in Regulatory Impact Analysis and Regulatory Compliance from the Schulich School of Business, the Harvard Kennedy School and most recently at the Luiss School of Government.