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Some thoughts on standard writing at the international level

Author : Ron Sinclair MBE, SGS Baseefa Technical Manager

07 January 2020

This year, our standards committee, IEC TC31 was not invited to meet along with the IEC General Meeting in Shanghai. Because we are one of the larger committees, always trying to find room for a number of parallel meetings for a fortnight, some hosts just find it too difficult.

However, on this occasion we did meet elsewhere in China, in Nanyang, about 900 km west of Shanghai, thanks to the kind invitation of CNEx, one of the very active Chinese test and certification bodies which major in equipment for use in Explosive Atmospheres.
Because of the location, a number of committee members, particularly from the USA, had not been given permission to travel, so my first meeting saw 12 people in the room and 10 people, including the convenor, dialling in for a conference call. When technology works, this can be OK, and in this case virtually all participants knew each other and could recognise voices. I am not so happy when participants don’t know each other and aren’t up to speed on the protocols for that type of meeting.
Personally, I participated in six meetings over the period, ranging in timespan from half a day to three days each.
The longest meeting involved the continuation of sifting through comments and preparing text for the next edition of IEC 60079-7. Since the requirements for Ex ec were integrated in the previous edition, a number of inconsistencies have been recognised, and the Maintenance Team are keen to get them ironed out before the first formal draft document is released to National Committees for their review and addition of further comments. The standardisation process may seem slow, but generally it is sure. In this case, we will have had three international meetings, in different locations, just to produce the first draft of the next edition. By doing it this way, we are hoping that we will get a maximum of 200 comments from National Committees to work our way through.
This lesson was learned from the work of the Maintenance Team for IEC 60079-11, where over 1000 comments were received from National Committees and it has taken a number of years to resolve them. Maintenance Teams cannot just dismiss a comment as “not relevant”, or “misplaced”, but are required to provide a considered response to each comment that is not fully adopted. Although many comments can be dealt with very quickly, particularly those that are purely editorial corrections or improvements, it is not unknown for a Maintenance Team to spend well over an hour discussing just a single comment, before deciding how to proceed.
It is an indication of just how complex the standard writing process can be, and those of us involved often feel that the users of standards do not understand the amount of work that went into developing the document. Yes, the documents are expensive to buy, but in terms of the effort going into their creation, they represent excellent value for money.
A problem, particular to standard writing at the international level, is the difficulty in arranging meetings without participants having to travel around the world several times a year. This is why we tend to programme multiple meetings into two slots, each lasting a fortnight, at roughly six-monthly intervals. The problem is that when there are multiple concurrent meetings, some individuals really ought to be in more than one meeting at the same time. In this case, there were two days when I had to choose between three possible meetings.
Nevertheless, we have found that this is the most efficient way to work (and also creates the lowest carbon footprint). At the moment, a large number of standards are all at similar points in their development or revision cycles, with active work proceeding simultaneously on about 20 documents. Overlap is inevitable, but the chairmen and secretaries of the main committee and the sub-committees do their best to ensure the most efficient utilisation of available resources when they plan the meetings.
About the author:
SGS Baseefa’s Technical Manager Ron Sinclair MBE is chairman of BSI Committee EXL/31, responsible for the UK input to both European and International standards for Electrical Equipment for use in potentially explosive atmospheres.
He is also chairman of Cenelec TC31, represents electrical standardisation interests at the European Commission’s ATEX Standing Committee and chairs the IECEx Service Facility Certification Committee.

Every two months, SGS Baseefa Technical Manager and IECEx Service Facility Certification Committee chairman Ron Sinclair MBE gives his perspective on the latest developments in the world of standards.

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