on August 8th, 2007

Dear Colleagues

We ran a successful (based on numbers and responses at the end, so I hope I don’t sound like a used car salesman here) conference on Hazardous Areas (Classifications and Equipment) this week. Very enjoyable meeting so many of my engineering peers who were so interactive, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. An enormous exchange of information done in the papers presented, the tea breaks and over a beer or two afterwards.

But one of the common gripes was still the despairing lack of true worldwide standards in this area; as opposed to the proliferation of standards at the local level (states within a country, in many cases). And one of the themes running through the conference was the slow progress in aligning the North American standards with the “rest of the world” especially in hazardous areas. There are a myriad of standards bodies operating in hazardous areas such as the IEC, ISA, CEN, CENELEC, ANSI, NFPA, NEMA, ASME, IICA (even the US Coastguard, I understand). I was amused by one of the speakers referring to CENELEC as (Committed European Nutcases Eventually Liable to Explode Completely). There is definitely an effort to move closer together but it is very slow.  One would think with the importance of the area that there would be some interest in having complete international harmonization to protect life and limb. Perhaps some of the problems have arisen by Hazardous areas being in a mixed electrical/mechanical and chemical area each governed by their own standards bodies with local country jurisdiction.

There is no dispute that this is an important area to focus on with worldwide standardisation efforts to have one agreed set of standards. One only needs to think of the disasters such as Petrobras – the world’s largest oil platform with ten killed; Piper Alpha; BP Texas and the recent explosion at the chemical plant outside London….and so forth.  The picture is changing slowly with one of the behemoths of the world economy China going for the international standards approach (rather than the US specific ones) and this is helping drive the case for true internationalisation of standards (not only for hazardous areas). And with such a number of engineers of enormous goodwill internationally working hard to unify our standards. But they need more support from all of us to really reach international standardisation. We are all commonly united in wanting to protect human life and make our work and home environments safer. So why on earth do we have all these competing standards and interest groups? Besides being confusing, it gives the idea to the general public that we are a disorganised crew.

Two other comments from the conference which I found interesting:

Everyone was absolutely gobsmacked with how everyone made their know-how freely available. I know some of the guys charge thousands of dollars for their advice and they were happily giving detailed advice on difficult solutions at the various breaks and during their papers. Sharing their know-how, tips and tricks built up over years of hard-won experience working in the trenches. It is always so
satisfying that the ethos of the true engineering professional is to share information and expertise freely and openly so that we can design a better product and contribute to a safer world. Bear in mind that there were a number of direct competitors in terms of skills and products and they were happily talking freely. No holds barred. Great to see this

The other issue was the need for the younger generation in engineering to take up the reins of leadership in driving the new standards, papers and various engineering committees. There is a definite absence of contributions from the younger guys (the generation Y). Now I know a lot of this standard development work can be considered to be a waste of time or tedious and with very little money changing hands for your labours in sitting on these committees. But it is critical to the business of engineering that we have current standards reflecting current practice and we need the younger engineering generation involved. At the risk of sounding mercenary, you will also eventually get valuable recognition eventually by contributing here.

So please focus on unifying standards by your support for an international approach and dare to present a paper at a conference and join an engineering committee. Even in a limited capacity. You will be surprised by how much a contribution you can make and how valuable your know-how is. Let’s get out of the thrall of the politicians in each country and go for a truly international engineering approach. After all, we are professionals not politicians.

Yours in engineering learning

Steve Mackay

PS In my next newsletter; I have a really interesting discussion on how to put your engineering brain into overdrive and improve it as if it is normal body muscle. Seriously – I was so impressed by really believable research here.

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