Overlapping standards: Why do we have so many ??

This post was updated on 13-Jun-16

If you’re one of my regular readers, you know that I make heavy reference to technical standards in my posts. One of the questions that is often asked, particularly by those new to the standards world is “Why are there so many competing or overlapping standards??” This is usually asked with a lot of frustration behind it, and usually at a point where they have just discovered that they chose a standard that was not applicable for some reason, or missed an important one altogether. The webcomic xkcd gives a great explanation of this phenomena:

XKCD comic 927 "Standards"

You can see the original comic at xkcd.com by clicking on the comic.

How Standards are Developed

Seriously, it falls to the National Standards Bodies, like the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) up here in the Great White North, or ANSI in the USA, and the Standards Development Organizations (SDOs) that they accredit to control the standards development process. The old-school approach of consensus standards development is lengthy, and in some areas, especially web development, not fast enough to keep up with developments in the field. It’s probably fair to say that that is often true, but there tends to be a larger gap in the web development area than in other technical fields. In the web development area, there are a number of less formal standards development initiatives on the go, including the development of HTML5 and CSS. The one big criticism of these informal processes is that they do not control consensus as well, and there is no guarantee that all stakeholders are represented on the Technical Committees.

The Role of Standards Development Organizations

Traditional SDOs are usually also members of National Standards Bodies like the Standards Council of Canada (SCC). These bodies help to make sure that within a single country, only one SDO has authority to create standards in a certain area or field. e.g. In Canada, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) has authority to create English and French standards in the electrical field (among many others). That authority is granted by SCC, which gets its authority from the Federal Government of Canada.

Internationally, ISO and IEC have similar authority to the National Standardization Bodies, with ISO developing mechanical and materials related standards and IEC developing electrical related standards. Their Authority comes from the United Nations and International Treaties that provide the basis for their operations. Much of Europe’s standardisation work, which was being done by committees at CEN, CENELEC and ETSI, is now being done, by the same experts in most cases, through ISO and IEC, using a treaty called the Vienna Agreement which allows this to happen. A wise move on the EU’s part, and one that Canada should consider for many CSA standards in my opinion.

Check out Dogbert’s “Standards Committee Meeting” for a lighter (but not necessarily completely incorrect) look at standards work!

Download IEC Standards

Download ISO Standards

Apparent Overlaps

CSA has developed a complex set of electrical safety standards in the 100+ years that they have been in business. That set is based in CSA C22.1, the Canadian Electrical Code, which deals primarily with building and installation requirements, although it does have some sections for particular types of equipment like motor-generator sets. “The Code” as it’s called, or “Part 1”, is the basis for all electrical installations in Canada.

Then there’s Part 2. Unlike Part 1, which comes in a single document, Part 2 is a series of roughly 300 specialised standards that deal with various specific topics. Some are broadly general, like CAN/CSA-C22.2 NO. 0, General requirements – Canadian electrical code, part II, or C22.2 No. 0.4 on Bonding of Electrical Equipment, and then there are standards like C22.2 No. 14, Industrial control equipment, and C22.2 No. 286, Industrial control panels and assemblies, appears to be confusingly similar, at least based on the title. Even reading the scope of the standard doesn’t really help, although it does tell us that No. 286 is a derivative standard from No. 14, and is intended to simplify the application of The Code to products covered by the scope of the standard.

To make things a bit more difficult, or simpler from a CSA perspective, a NEW Part 2 standard is in the works: CSA C22.2 No. 301, INDUSTRIAL ELECTRICAL MACHINERY. I’ve been a part of the Task Force working on the development of the draft of this document, which is supposed to be a further focusing upon the needs of industrial machinery. I can tell you that we did not restrict ourselves to “just” CSA C22.2 No. 14 as the basis for the document, nor is it strictly a refinement. I am too close to the document to know if we have achieved what we set out to do in the first place, but I look forward to seeing the results of the Public Review. I will announce that on the blog as soon as it happens. The document is planned for publication in the fall of 2016.


So why do we have so many overlapping and competing standards? Because humans are very creative creatures, who are also very hard to control! We have some structures in place to try to keep a handle on this, but for now, we will continue to have many overlapping and competing standards. That’s a good thing for me, because if there were only one standard for each area, I’d probably be out of business. Until then, call me if you need some help.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to comment below. I read them all!

Author: Doug Nix

+DougNix is Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Compliance InSight Consulting, Inc. (http://www.complianceinsight.ca) in Kitchener, Ontario, and is Lead Author and Managing Editor of the Machinery Safety 101 blog.

Doug's work includes teaching machinery risk assessment techniques privately and through Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, Ontario, as well as providing technical services and training programs to clients related to risk assessment, industrial machinery safety, safety-related control system integration and reliability, laser safety and regulatory conformity.

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