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How Codes are Made

by Mark Lamendola

Have you ever wondered where the various codes come from? And, have you ever wondered why—if the codes are so good—they undergo revisions? For example, why does the National Electrical Code get revised every three years?

Each industry has its own acknowledged experts. Among these folks are academics, manufacturers, practitioners (trades or professional), and regulatory people. These experts volunteer to serve on panels or committees that decide on standards.

Some of these standards are codifed into semi-legal documents or documents which municipalities or other bodies use as the basis of their laws pertaining to how work must be done in a given industry. In most code books, you will see a listing of who helped write that particular code book. Those folks may be called "code panel members" or have some other reference made to them.

The code-making process isn’t perfect. Many of the folks have their own agendas. For example, manufacturers naturally want to ensure the standards don’t exclude their products.

In many cases, the technical representatives of these manufacturers believe so strongly in their own products that they feel the codes should lean toward use of those products. This isn’t a bad thing—it just needs to be tempered by third parties. And, that tempering often results in some pretty tough meetings. In some cases, compromises come about. In other cases, a beneficial change doesn’t get made in that code cycle because the manufacturers weren’t able to make a strong enough logical case. In the next go around, the politics on a particular issue are likely to have cooled and a beneficial change gets made. This is why codes get revised and why some codes get revised on a regular schedule. People aren’t perfect, but everyone tries to make the system work.

In most code-making bodies, the panel members accept "change nominations," "change submittals," or "code proposals" from within their industry. These suggestions for a change then get deliberated and decided upon. Often, a trades person will submit a suggestion that describes a way to fix a problem. The panel may see the problem as clearly needing fixing, but disagree with the trades person and among themselves on how best to prevent or solve that problem. A solution in the very next code cycle might prove quite effective, or it may produce other problems that then require changing that solution in the next cycle.

How can you suggest a code change for your industry? Look in the front or back of the appropriate code book, and in most of these books you’ll see some contact information and a procedure for submitting changes. If you don’t see such information, you will at least see contact information. Follow up by sending in a suggestion that follows these steps:

  • Give your name and contact information, plus a brief (75 words or less) summary (yes, there are long summaries—don’t write one) of your qualifications for submitting the proposed code change.
  • Refer to the code section in question, using an exact a reference as possible. If no code section applies, note that you were not able to discern that a code section applies to the matter at hand.
  • Succinctly describe the problem your proposal addresses. Don’t go into detail about how awful the consequences are of ignoring this. Just describe the problem, and be factual.
  • Succinctly describe your proposal. Don’t try to actually write a new part of the code—anything you write would be changed in committee, anyway. The obvious exception to this is where you are submitting a proposal to reword part of the code for clarity or accuracy.

Please note that, absent a formal procedure, this generic procedure is the way to make your views known. If the recipient needs more information, you’ll get a letter or phone call. Don’t try to sell the proposal, don’t gild the lilly, and don’t kill your proposal by loading it with detail or extraneous information. Less is more. Keep it simple, or keep it to yourself.

How can you serve on a code-making panel? First, you need to have some established expertise. Here are some ways people recognize expertise:

  • Years of experience. No getting around this. If you have 30 years of experience in the industry, you have an advantage.
  • Notable accomplishments as a practitioner. Inventions, outstanding projects, and documented ability are some examples of these.
  • Papers published, presentations given. These show your ability to articulate, and that is a very important skill for what these committees do.
  • Industry involvement. If you serve on the board of a trade organization, meet folks at trade shows (and that means more than a perfunctory hello—you need to follow up), and generally network, you become someone folks know. This alone can get you onto a panel, if you have made a point of doing things that show folks you respect them, respect the industry, have strong ethics, and aren’t afraid to work.

If you understand how the code making process works, you understand these codes don’t come out of thin air or represent some guru’s opinion. Very few, if any, participants in the process take their contribution lightly. Spending time as one of them can be deeply rewarding.