Regulations vs Standards: Clearing Up the Confusion



Standards vs Regulations

By Mike Pankonin, AEM Senior Director of Safety and Product Leadership

Outside of the product safety departments at most of our member companies, I’m guessing there’s a bit of confusion regarding voluntary industry standards versus government regulations.

Some of that confusion is due to semantics. The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), for example, refers to the regulations it administers as “standards” and not as regulations, when in fact they command the force of law.

An informative article by the International Light Transportation Vehicle Association (ILTVA) defines regulations this way:

“Regulation has been described as a rule of order having the force of law, prescribed by a superior or competent authority, relating to the actions of those under the authority’s control. Regulations are issued by various government departments and agencies to carry out the intent of legislation enacted by the legislature of the applicable jurisdiction.”

The article goes on to say:

“Administrative agencies perform a number of different government functions, including rule making. The rules issued by these agencies are usually called ‘regulations’ and are designed to guide the activity of those regulated by the agency. Regulations also function to ensure uniform application of the law.”

On the other hand, the ILTVA describes standards like this:

“Voluntary standards are standards established generally by private-sector bodies and that are available for use by any person or organization, private or government. The term includes what are commonly referred to as ‘industry standards’ as well as ‘consensus standards.’”

There is however, a very close relationship between good standards and good regulations, or the lack thereof. Good standards, applicable and used by the industry minimize the need for, and risk of, regulations being developed. Further, when it is deemed necessary to draft regulations, good standards make for an excellent basis for the regulations and in some cases voluntary consensus standards are directly referenced in a regulation.

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In 1996, Congress signed the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act (Public Law 104-113), which requires all U.S. federal agencies to use voluntary consensus standards to the extent possible.  

The Society for Standards Professionals (formerly the Standards Engineering Society or SES) notes that voluntary consensus standards are used in the regulatory process in a variety of ways:

“The requirements contained in specific standards may be used as the mandatory requirements. Standards may be used as the starting point for writing a regulation. Legislators may also use standards as purely advisory guidelines or may even refrain from regulation in a given area because the voluntary standards are adequate.”

The Society lists 10 advantages of referencing standards in regulations:

  1. Relieves regulatory authorities of the need to devise new, detailed, or complex requirements relating to materials, processes, design considerations and criteria, technical procedures, test methods, etc.
  2. Permits detailed technical requirements to be embodied into the text of a regulation simply by referencing a standard or the relevant parts of a standard
  3. Simplifies and accelerates legislative work and lowers cost to government in developing and enforcing regulations
  4. Reduces the number of pages of regulations and makes them more manageable
  5. Promotes uniformity of technical requirements – as standards provide the basis for certification, technical requirements can be equitably applied
  6. Improves responsiveness of regulators to public concerns
  7. Encourages participation in the development of standards
  8. Avoids duplication of efforts and optimizes the use of scarce standards resources by taking into consideration the results of international standardization work
  9. Facilitates elimination of barriers to trade by referring to recognized national standards which have been harmonized internationally
  10. Improves public acceptance of regulations when there is endorsement of existing voluntary standards.

One of the best recent examples of voluntary standards development by our industry is the revision to ANSI/ASAE S279.15, Lighting and Marking of Agricultural Equipment on Highways.

AEM and its member companies worked together with the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) to complete the revised standard in 2010. AEM then led the successful effort to incorporate the standard within the Agriculture Machinery Illumination Safety Act (AMISA), which was included in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) passed by Congress in June 2012 and was being used as the basis for the regulations to implement the act.

The result of these actions provide common equipment lighting and marking applicable throughout the U.S., improving safety on rural roads, and for agricultural equipment manufacturers, the elimination of confusion created by varying state requirements.

If you have more questions on standards versus regulations, please feel free to contact me by email,

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