Obenski column: Double-edged standard sword

As an engineer I strongly favor standards.

Standards are what make the physical part of the modern world possible. If you buy copier paper it will fit and not jam because it is standardized. A ball bearing for your car, or airplane or power tool, if the numbers match, it will fit every time. Every 120 volt appliance will work in every 120v outlet in North America. Much of the allied success in WWII goes to standardization. Every 30-06 cartridge fit every M1 rifle, every 1903 Springfield rifle and every BAR. Six million M1 rifles had interchangeable parts no matter who made them. Most standards are so ubiquitous we do not even notice them.


It has not always been thus. The oldest standard was introduced by Qin Shi Huang (259BC) first emperor of China. He standardized his archer’s equipment so his advancing army could pick up and reuse arrows found on the ground.

Bolts and nuts were not always interchangeable. In 1841, Joseph Whitworth created a standard for bolts, nuts and wrenches making British machine parts interchangeable. This evolved into a few standardized systems that make it possible to buy a bolt and nut from different sources almost anywhere and with the confidence they will fit together.

Almost any non-biological product you buy conforms to numerous standards, many of which exist by industry collaboration, not government rules.

Sometimes though, the committees that develop these standards have a different agenda.

Safety glasses are important in many industries, because an eye injury disables a worker and possibly his whole team. Unfortunately, the office engineers that write the standards are not the workers who use them. Simple safety glasses have evolved into wrap around types that many workers cannot use because they cause distortion, steam up, or cause sweat that gets in their eyes.

In the early ‘70s Roll-Over Protective Structures (ROPS) were mandated for tractors. Generally a good idea, but in the definition of tractors they included fork lifts. It’s impossible to roll-over a fork lift, the tall mast prevents it. Instead of removing fork lifts from the requirement, they renamed if Falling Object Protective Structure (FOPS) on the theory that a load could fall off the forks, but actually the mast already provides that protection.

Many fork lift operators have been seriously injured by the FOPS when a forklift becomes upset. The common event has earned a name: flyswatter effect. Did they rescind the rule? No, they want the operator, who may be on and off the machine several hundred times a day to wear a seat belt to protect him from the FOPS. Don’t rescind a mistake, double down.

Building codes were introduced to protect the buyer from incompetent builders, and facilitate the collection of taxes.

Over the years codes have grown and become more uniform but also stricter and often unrealistic. Hawaii is victim to international building and energy codes — IBC and IECC — which impose some absurd requirements, like R19 insulation and dual pane e-glass windows that protect against extreme temperature, for houses that do not need heat or air conditioning and have windows that will never close. To justify it they propose mandatory air conditioning. Suddenly 4×4 timbers that have served well for 100 years must be 6×6, over twice the cost.

Who benefits?

The “improvements” add 10% or more to the cost of a new home. These standards are mostly written by the vendors’ and manufacturers’ lobbyists to make their products mandatory. Increased sales dollars for them and improved profits all the way up the supply chain. A home buyer pays thousands more for materials and the vendors and manufacturers make a few dollars more profit per house, times thousands of houses. The tax authorities profit, too.


The loser is the home buyer forced to pay for features that offer no tangible benefit. Think about this the next time the government proposes to improve something you might buy. Who really benefits?

Ken Obesnki is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona who writes a biweekly column for West Hawaii Today. Send feedback to obenskik@gmail.com.