Sermonizers and self-help hucksters sometimes talk about the “Ls” of life — Listen, Learn, Love, Laugh and Labor. But there's at least one more important L. It sounds ridiculously practical and mundane in company with the five big Ls, but it's crucial to keeping our lives on track. Liquidate? Litigate? Luxuriate? Levitate? No, those are just plain silly.
I was thinking of Label. From organizing files to marking what's yours (wasn't it a comfortable feeling being absolutely sure you always wore your own underwear at summer camp?) to keeping track of all your equipment, labeling is the one “L” that truly keeps us civilized.
Everything comes down to labeling. If reading, writing and arithmetic empower us, labeling enables us. Stores, in fact, sometimes label displays of paper and plastic labels products “enabling devices.” Further, one electrical-wiring label manufacturer's credo is “Good labeling practices reduce installation costs and increase customer satisfaction.”
If electrical contractors know more about labeling than most professionals, it's because you have more stuff to keep track of. Today's computer technology makes labeling faster and easier. Contractors use bar-code technology and label-printing software programs to mark what's theirs.
Still, stuff does get lost in the shuffle of construction. Electrical contracting is a transient business in which electricians mix with other tradespeople and spread tools and equipment far and wide. That's why most everything a contractor does involves some form of elaborate labeling system — whether it's estimating projects, specifying products, marking wires (or cable labeling), labeling field enclosures, posting signage (lockout/tagout), tracking tools or tagging equipment with pressure-sensitive labels.
Contractors can be pressure-sensitive about labels themselves — and for good reason. When OSHA first mandated MSDSs (Material Safety Data Sheets) on job sites 13 years ago, contractor groups rose up to deride the new OSHA rule. Basically, OSHA stipulates that an employer maintain “readily available” MSDS information for each hazardous chemical used in the workplace. The MSDS summarizes the chemical's properties, the health and physical hazards, and related safety information. It all sounds like a good practice to maintain a safe working place. Trouble is, contractors don't usually stay in one fixed location for long. They continually move from job site to job site and expose employees to new environments and new hazards. The MSDS rule makes sense for most work environments — offices, factories, etc. — but not for construction job sites. Common sense says that manufacturers should label their own products if they're typically used in the field, not place the burden on transitory contractors.
Nevertheless, the OSHA MSDS rule stuck — seemingly sticking it once again to contractors becoming increasingly infuriated about government bureaucracy. Curiously, though, 12 years after MSDS forms were first mandated, the issue of MSDSs on job sites now seems a non-issue. They're now just another routine, another labeling job for contractors to handle. That's partly because job-site software can now help contractors maintain MSDSs. OSHA now allows the forms to be retrieved from computers (except from Internet databases) so long as there are no barriers to immediate employee access.
The point to all of this is that new labeling standards always seem to win out in the end. Nobody likes new labeling laws at first, but then they get used to them. Manufacturer associations always lobby against any kind of product labeling initially, but history always proves them to be short sighted. History always proves labeling to be a good, proper and progressive thing.
When forced to list all the ingredients of their products on their labels in the 1970s, food-processing manufacturers fought the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) tooth and nail. Fifteen years later, when the FDA said they also had to list fat, protein, fiber and vitamin content, manufacturers argued that such labeling was a useless extravagance that only a few crackpot dieters and health nuts would appreciate. They claimed consumers didn't care about what was in their food so long as they liked how it tasted. Now, of course, consumers wouldn't have food-package labeling any other way.
Enforcing labeling standards seems to be moving us all in the right direction. If new standards always seem bureaucratic and dumb, it's only because they are written and enforced by dumb government bureaucracies. But the impetus behind new standards is true because it comes from citizens' need for safer products and services.
It's also true that new OSHA rules always seem to come down hardest on small businesses, which struggle to comply, while manufacturers lean on associations to lobby against new regulations. For instance, when the USDA came out with their food-group pyramid 10 years ago, they inverted the pyramid to emphasize grains, fruits and vegetables. But the beef and dairy associations successfully lobbied the USDA to “right” the pyramid to make beef and dairy products look more important than fruits, vegetables and grains. If the food pyramid “scheme” seems a little thing to pick on, it does show the insidious power that any well-moneyed association can wield — to affect all our lives.
Speaking of labels, manufacturers and contractors: Why do manufacturer and distributors call contractors “end users”? It's a confusing label to pin on someone. (“What does your dad do for a living?” “He's an end user.”) Why can't they be called contractors, installers, specifiers or even buyers? If you have to call someone an end user, shouldn't it be the building owner? But that's another column…
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