The rising need of safety standards

In December 2019, a massive health outbreak shook the entire world. Initially the SARS-CoV-2 and later identified as COVID-19, the pandemic took the health of millions and entire economies by storm. The need for global health and safety standards was immediate and was required at scale. As observed by Sonya Bird, Director International Standards at Underwriters Laboratories, "The critical nature of standards came into focus through the recognition of the need for standards for new areas related to the pandemic, including the need for global requirements for facemasks and hand sanitizer. The need for standards for new technologies and addressing aspects of the pandemic were identified as well."

Apart from the pandemic, rapid ozone layer depletion, global warming and climatic change have led to increased number of forest fires, disease outbreaks, smog and more. Each one leading to their respective health hazards, parts of which often can be effectively managed or significantly reduced by regulating and maintaining safety standards.

Why safety standards?

Safety standards are well-researched, written documents that outline the process in which a product is tested to help mitigate risk, injury or danger. In addition to ensuring safety, standards can also measure and validate performance, environmental health and sustainability.“For example, to facilitate action and measurement of progress towards the UNSustainable Development Goals (SDG), quantifiable targets have been defined for each of the 17 SDGs. Standards developers, including Underwriters Laboratories, IEC, BIS, ASTM International, and others, have publishedmany existing standards portfolios prior to the establishment of the SDGs which are identified through a mapping exercise and link standards for addressing respective SDGs,” observes Ms Bird.

Fields of safety standards

The importance of standards has enabled them to reach vast number of sectors with multiple opportunities including technical knowhow and scientific research. Some of the major industries that require skilled professionals both building and maintaining safety standards include:

  • Space
  • Food
  • Automobiles
  • Telecommunication
  • Electronics
  • Chemical
  • Pharmaceutical
  • Medical engineering and more

Safety standards in India

In India the safety standards are established by various laws and statutory bodies. The laws that govern the safety of the personnel and the environment include - The Factories Act, 1948, The Mines Act, 1952, The Dock Workers (Safety, Health & Welfare) Act, 1986. The statutory body includes The Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO), National Cyber Safety and Security Standards (NCSSS), Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), and the Bureau of Indian Standards. India is also a member of the ISO (International Organization for Standardization).

The professionals who contribute towards the formulation of standards in the country are primarily experts of the particular field. However, there continues to be a major gender disparity in the field.

How the number speaks for women in the fields of safety standards

According to the All-India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE), 43% percent of the STEM graduates in India are women but only less than 15% of Indian women have a career in STEM.The data for women participating in setting safety standards in India is unavailable, and the availability of global data is scant. A preliminary estimate based on data informally collected by participants in the UNECE Gender Responsive Standards Initiative placed the figure of women participating in international standard bodies at about 25% which highlights the need for gender equality.

The need for gender equality in standards

The representation of women in decision-making bodies, including standards bodies, is necessary to ensure that the interests of both genders are represented equally and keeping gender specific issues and concerns in mind. The standards around safety belts in cars for example did not considerthe comfort and safety of pregnant women.While these standards have since been revised, they were associated with risk of foetal death, maternal trauma and motor vehicle crashes.3

A more balanced participation would be primarily in the interest of the community itself. Participation of all genders in any activity would assure equal or adequate representation and eventually provide a holistic view of the team, the performance, opinions and results across all functions and industries.

Looking Ahead

The increase the number of women enrolling in STEM subjectswill move the gender equality needle and shall be a step in the positive direction.Inspiring young women with the right role models like HarshiniKanhekar(the first female firefighter of India), and Wally Funk (first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board) among others would be key.

Furthermore, government initiatives such as Knowledge Involvement Research Advancement through Nurturing (KIRAN) launched in 2014-15, provides opportunities for women scientists in moving up the academic and administrative ladder. Standards bodies, national governments and societal stakeholders could collaborate and work with each other to devise solutions that are tailor made to localized and gendered needs. “Stakeholders involved in standards development are evolving and the tools with which they wish to participate in standards development are evolving. 

Challenges for standards development – including the need for speed, systems based approaches, use of artificial intelligence, demand for machine readable standards - can also serve as opportunities,” observes Bird.  

It is imperative to devise standards with a focus on the needs and aspirations of all genders. By encouraging their engagement in the standards developing process, we can positively affect their health and safety in the workplace and in their daily lives. Additionally, more opportunities will result in their participation in international trade and global value chains.

References

  1. "Where Are The Gutsy Girls Of Indian Science? They Could Help Us Against Next Pandemic". 2021. Theprint. https://theprint.in/opinion/where-are-gutsy-girls-of-indian-science-they-could-help-against-pandemic/653540/.
  2. 2021.https://www.education.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/statistics-new/aishe_eng.pdf.
  3. UNITED NATIONS. 2019. "Gender Responsive Standards". Geneva: ECONOMIC COMMISSION FOR EUROPE. https://unece.org/DAM/trade/Publications/ECE_TRADE_445E.pdf.