BALTIMORE -- Deliverance came in Vol. 53, No. 70 of the Federal Register, dated Tuesday, April 12, 1988.
The section affecting MET Electrical Testing Co. Inc. ran 23 pages -- consuming dozens of columns and requiring tens of thousands of words, much of it written in small, annotative print.
It meant that the Baltimore-based company had won a 15-year battle against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a victory that could radically change the industry that tests and certifies the safety of electrical equipment for industrial and commercial use in the United States.
The ruling in the Federal Register, effective June 13, breaks the longtime dominance of the testing industry held by Underwriters Laboratories Inc. and opens the business to greater competition and controversy.
Opponents of the rule contend that the regulation could cause a proliferation of unscrupulous product testing and certification services -- organizations that would fudge figures and findings to get more profits and clients.
Indeed, the regulation could affect the way business is done throughout the entire standards, testing and certification industry -- an estimated $1.2 billion business occupied by nearly 2,000 companies, most of them small and obscure.
As a group, those labs have tremendous power. Their product standards and certifications affect the costs, quality, safety and availability of nearly all items sold in America.
MET, with $8 million in annual revenue, is a relatively small player in the electrical testing and certification field. Since 1894, that business has been dominated by Underwriters Laboratories, a nonprofit safety testing and certification company founded in Chicago and now headquartered in Northbrook, Ill.
UL practically started the electrical standards and certification industry in the United States. Its round labels of certification are found on millions of products -- everything from toasters to gargantuan generators used to supply power to communities nationwide.
The UL presence is so overwhelming, its labels so ubiquitous, that the company often is regarded as a governmental agency. Therein lies the rub, as MET saw it.
Local, state and, until 1973, federal agencies frequently required UL certification of electrical products sold within their jurisdictions. Electrical equipment used or installed within factories, cafeterias and government offices, as well as electrical components in government-financed building projects, also required UL approval.
Small, lesser-known companies like MET complained that the governments had given UL a monopoly by mandating its services in a market occupied by equally qualified competitors.
In 1973, the federal government yielded -- somewhat. That year, OSHA, which monitors work place safety, published regulations designed to admit more companies into the business of safety testing and certification of electrical and other products used in federally regulated industries.
The OSHA rule called for testing to be done by "nationally recognized testing laboratories ... such as, but not limited to, Underwriters Laboratories and Factory Mutual Research Corporation."
Factory Mutual, based in Norwood, Mass., is one of about eight testing labs and associations responsible for a large part of the privately developed product standards in the United States.
For a variety of reasons, OSHA never implemented the 1973 rule. The agency never defined "nationally recognized testing laboratory" either.
Instead, from the viewpoint of the smaller labs, OSHA made things worse by using UL and FMRC as examples of "nationally recognized" labs. In the absence of a clear definition, potential customers misconstrued the examples to mean that UL and FMRC were the government's preferred testing laboratories, critics said.
"OSHA created a monopoly," said MET President Leonard Frier. "It limited our access to markets. And it allowed UL to determine, without any statutory authority whatsoever, what products would and would not be sold in the United States."
"It was an intolerable situation," said Joseph O'Neil, executive director of the Washington-based American Council of Independent Laboratories, which represents 1,000 testing labs across the country.
UL and FMRC were so entrenched in the electrical testing and certification business, O'Neill said, "Many laboratories didn't get into the market because they saw that it was closed by government edict."
But while other labs decided to drop out of the contest, MET, founded in Baltimore in 1959, decided to fight.
The company petitioned OSHA in 1973 to apply the "nationally recognized" label to MET. When OSHA refused, MET officials filed suit against the agency in U.S. District Court here.
In 1983, OSHA and MET agreed to a settlement in which the agency promised to proceed with a rule-making procedure that would clearly define "nationally recognized testing laboratories," establish procedures for federal accreditation and eliminate references to UL and FMRC in federal regulations.
MET also mounted legal campaigns in Chicago and other jurisdictions, where it challenged the right of local officials to require UL or FMRC certifications on electrical projects and wares. The company won in all forums, picking up a major victory in Chicago in October 1986, when the city's chief electrical inspector, Timothy M. Cullerton, officially dropped objections to MET's participation in municipal projects.
But MET's biggest win was delivered here last week in the form of the Federal Register. The heading on the relevant section was wordy: "Safety Testing or Certification of Certain Workplace Equipment and Materials: Deletion of Specific Testing Laboratory Names; Definition of Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory; Determination of Eligible Testing Organizations."
The new rule eliminates all references to UL and FMRC. It finally defines a "nationally recognized testing laboratory" -- partly as one that has the "capability to examine specific equipment for work place safety." And it sets forth specific procedures for becoming accredited as a nationally recognized lab.
Barry J. White, OSHA's safety standards director, said myriad events got in the way of promulgating regulations opening up competition for MET and other testing laboratories. At one point, according to MET, the agency simply stopped accepting applications for accreditation.
"That was a rather poor idea, I think," White said. "I don't blame MET for being unhappy that it took so long."
The new regulations could bring up to 50 additional companies into the electrical testing and certification business, White said. But UL, which had $160 million in revenue last year, probably will hold on to most of the business, he said. Still, O'Neil and other supporters of the small testing laboratories see the OSHA ruling opening other doors. Labs accredited for electrical testing could gain certification in other areas, O'Neil said. Federal certification also could open access to testing and certification of a wide range of consumer goods.
That potential growth for the small labs bothers Joseph Kinney, director of the National Safe Workplace Institute in Chicago. "Most of these labs are profit-oriented. And what we're beginning to see over and over again are so-called safety consultants and labs producing data that is pleasing to their clients," Kinney said.
He suggested that in addition to setting standards for accreditation, the federal government ought to set stiff penalties, including imprisonment, for the officials of any laboratories convicted of "cooking data" to get unsafe products into the work place and market place.
Frier, whose company is a privately held, for profit organization, bridles at those comments. "We have 120 highly trained engineers and technicians here," he said. "We are as professional as any professional organization. ... The only difference between us and UL and other nonprofit labs is that we pay taxes."
For their part, UL officials say they welcome the change in the regulatory environment that will create more competition.
"If others can do the same type of work that we do, they should be allowed to do it," said Joe Bhatia, a UL executive and company spokesman in Washington. Bhatia said that UL had encouraged OSHA to delete the company's name from federal regulations.
"Our only concern was that the proper guidelines be developed for testing laboratories," he said.