Open, Balanced, and Fair
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2012
A couple of months ago I was at a meeting attended by the leaders of several associations that represent business groups. When the discussion turned to what the CEOs of these associations were hearing from their members, it didn’t surprise me to learn that one of the most common complaints was the cost of regulation to business. It’s a topic that has become a staple whenever business people talk about what would make the economy stronger and improve the business climate. It’s true that governmental agencies sometimes impose requirements that make little sense or are impractical to apply. It’s also true that these efforts are sometimes answered by assaults on the country’s entire regulatory framework, attacks that would undermine the effort to apply reasonable safety standards to protect workers and consumers. We should not allow tough economic conditions to be exploited by those who want to roll back legitimate and necessary health and safety provisions
As far back as the Reagan Administration, the federal government has had an established policy of using privately developed consensus codes and standards in its regulatory activities, unless doing so would be inconsistent with the law or otherwise impractical. There are many strong arguments in favor of this approach. A key benefit to taxpayers is that governmental agencies do not have to pay the costs of developing the standards that become the basis of regulations. Private non-profit organizations like NFPA pay those costs, and we recoup them from the users of the standards who buy them from us or pursuant to a license which we grant.
An important benefit of the system, one that is often overlooked, is that an open and transparent consensus process like NFPA’s requires the kind of broad participation that is the best protection against impractical regulations — our standards and codes are not drafted by an isolated bureaucrat sitting in a cubicle in Washington. When a governmental agency references an NFPA standard or code — there are more than 400 such references in federal regulations — it does so with the knowledge that the practical implications of those standards and codes have been carefully considered as part of the consensus process. At the heart of that process are the NFPA technical committees, groups of experts drawn from industry, the enforcement community, government — including more than 500 federal agency representatives — and other stakeholders who have looked at the application of those codes and standards from every possible perspective. Our consensus process does not require unanimity, but it does require a substantial level of agreement; a requirement will not be accepted just because a single interest group, industry, or public sector participant thinks it’s a good idea.
For all the criticism that we sometimes hear about how difficult it is to do business in the United States, we still have the strongest economic system in the world, while providing safety standards for workers and the public that are the envy of nations around the globe. Processes like the one we follow at NFPA, which bring together technical experts from the public and private sectors to thrash out these tough regulatory issues in an open, balanced, and fair way, are an essential component in maintaining the vital equilibrium that allows economic growth without sacrificing safety.