By Craig Wagner
President of Global Glove
While the Internet and spin-off technologies claim the lion share of ink and coverage in broadcast, webcast and print media, and rightly so, the most pervasive factor creating change within our industry remains regulatory standards. And as the European Union begins to flex its collective muscle, industries of every stripe are beginning to take notice of the way the world’s largest economy is doing business. And the centerpiece of the EU way of business is the CE standard. This standard covers product, service, packaging and labeling specifications from everything to industrial work gloves to chocolates. And as a weary Douglas Ivestor of Coca Cola knows all to well, failure to understand this new model or the compliance czars in charge can create a very large headache.
But what of this CE model and what are its implications for our market beyond simply compliance issues for competing in Europe? While certain aspects, especially the elephantine regulations regarding packaging and labeling may provide little direction, the definitive benchmark of product standards certainly prove a model for domestic practices. Do we have more to learn from the CE standard than just figuring out how to comply or get around it?
Government agencies such as NIOSH and OSHA are not immune to the same pressures facing the businesses they study and regulate. Cuts in funding, greater emphasis on efficiency and delivering more value for taxpayer dollars is changing if not the agency’s regulatory role then most certainly its approach. Whereas OSHA has at times maintained an adversarial role with both industry and PPE suppliers, the agency now finds itself strengthening dialog with both to affect changes and develop uniform standards.
In addition, it is increasingly clear that OSHA must seriously consider the CE Standards model already in place in the fledgling European Union. The European CE Standards apply for not only workplace regulations but PPE as well. While some minimum PPE standards do exist here, specifications really apply on an individual basis with each safety manager or director. Sometimes those specifications are pegged to a particular product and based more on cost and fiscal factors rather than safety and protective qualities.
And I am not crying foul or sour grapes here. I believe in competitive strength, especially if a particular glove outclasses all others. But what the CE Standard enables the EU to do is standardize across the board for a certain PPE product or class. That means that even if an overseas, low-labor or homegrown product performs as well or better, if it doesn’t meet the CE Standard, it doesn’t sell. This may seem in conflict with free market or competitive beliefs. It’s not. It simply provides a benchmark in quality and protection that must be met by all before entry in to the marketplace. And while no country on earth has as vigilant an advocate for workplace safety than OSHA, most of the enforcement teeth in OSHA’s regulations concern environmental factors over product-specific safety mandates.
In turn, trade associations and industry councils are facing a challenge to re-define their roles and prove their value to members and customers alike. You name the topic or constituency and there’s a representative association out there – Industrial Hand Protection Association, National Industrial Glove Distribution Association, Industrial Safety Equipment Association, Safety Equipment Manufacturers Association, Industrial Distributors Association, etc.
All do a good job of lobbying local and federal lawmakers on behalf of their members. All do a good job in making available educational resources and industry-specific news to associates. What trade associations and organizations lack is a unified voice and greater coordination on issues and topics in everyone’s interest. The same issues affecting distributors impact suppliers, safety directors, end users, OSHA and vice versa. The argument for greater unity among all industry players is an old one. However, it’s never been as critical to our combined interests and futures. And the model Europe has set with its standards and regulatory measures is not the only one we might embrace.
Please don’t misread me with regard to the European model. Europe has a lot of issues to tackle before it truly becomes the economic powerhouse it’s so often touted to be. Some of those issues such as sovereignty rights, endemic protectionism and the ugly specter of nationalism seem insurmountable. But the blue print it’s laying out for getting there is one we can learn from. And I’m not referring to its strict fiscal, political and economic requirements for admission into the union and the unified currency. I’m speaking instead to its unified approach to the industrial marketplace. For example, in most EU nations such as Germany, there already exists a history of cooperation among industry, unions, government and consumers. Though it sometimes flies in the face of free market ideals, fostering a unified approach to the competitive and operational issues facing us all will be critical for success in a new century.
Defining Our Collective Future
Existing PPE standards do a good job of providing benchmarks for quality and safety. But without coordination among manufacturers, regulatory agencies, and trade associations, PPE regs will continue to fall short of their intended objectives. And while not all parts of the CE model are palatable or even useful, concentration and enforcement on product-specific standards is definitely worth review. Unified and universal standards deserve even more consideration.
I know that if you have reached this far into my column you will no doubt agree with some views and disagree with others. Keep in mind this viewpoint represents one who makes his living as a domestic manufacturer. Importers, distributors and others in the safety equipment market may disagree or even see additional items of import. Yet if there is one thought that you take, I hope it is this: The industrial safety arena is made up of many players, but the challenges facing us all are in many instances very much the same. The solutions to those problems must reflect our common interests, objectives and collective future
Craig Wagner (email@example.com) is the President of a privately held glove maker, Global Glove of Ramsey, Minnesota. In addition to speaking and writing extensively about the hand protection market, Mr. Wagner is a frequent lecturer at on-site safety and quality assurance seminars for industrial workers across the country and around the world.
* Source: 1999 Bureau of Labor Statistics for Occupational and Workplace Injuries