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A world of standards

In the course of the average day’s activities we execute task after task without a second thought to the implications of our actions, or the effort others must put in for us to achieve success and do so safely.

We jump into our cars and drive through junctions controlled by traffic signals without even a worry that opposing traffic may have the green light the same time we do, causing a catastrophic crash.

We take public transport that travels down Horse Hill in St. Joseph or up Coach Hill in St. John and give no thought to whether the person responsible for quality control ensured that all mechanical safety systems were working.

It can be even more fundamental: We awake, turn on the tap and drink a glass of water and never once wonder whether the person responsible for chlorination was drunk on the job and failed to perform as expected — and whether there are systems in place to ensure that in such an eventuality our water supply remains safe for human consumption.

We don’t give a second thought to these things because we live in a world of standards. Our lives and the processes that impact them are so heavily regulated that we now take that regulation as par for the course. When the package says we are buying two kilos of flour, we don’t ask that it be weighed at the cashier — we expect that standards are in place and they are being checked by the anonymous standards official or bureau.

And while generally, it is not unreasonable to accept these things as a given, there are times when glaring exceptions cause us to sit up and just wonder if, for instance, the zero calories drink really is calorie free; if the burger was cooked at the right temperature for the required time; if the kitchen worker who we cannot see are observing the rules of proper hygiene.

Earlier this year in Trinidad we had the situation where 223 patients were over-exposed to blasts of radiation from a mis-calibrated X-ray machine. Ninety-one of them died. When the average Barbadian goes for an X-ray, does he ever wonder when last the machine was inspected and certified? We doubt it, since we take it for granted that the “standards man” has done his job.

Earlier this week we read the story of a dialysis patient here who reported that while he was being dialysed there was a power failure, the institution had no back-up generator and the hand pump on the machine failed to work. Luckily the power supply was restored just in time.

Is there a standard in Barbados that says such a critical life or death operation should only take place in a facility with back-up power? Is the “standards man” required to check the manual crank on this equipment? If yes, how often? And, in this case, when last?

Quite frankly, given the complexity of modern life and the services that are so integral to our functioning, the formulation, implementation and monitoring of standards have become more and more critical, and certainly will continue in this direction. And just as the “standards man” has to ensure that deliverers of services operate at the required quality level, society in general has to ensure that those whose jobs it is to police the system don’t fall asleep at the wheel.

After all, two ounces missing from every pound of sugar will not bankrupt the average housewife, but it could make the unscrupulous merchant a rich man. Likewise, being off by five minutes as you leave home for work in the morning will not kill you; but if the engineer calibrating the traffic signal is off by two seconds he or she could kill a busload of commuters. And if your doctor feels latex gloves are becoming too expensive so he decides to change after every three or four patients…

You get the picture!

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