The National Building Code was established in 1905 by the National Board of Fire Underwriters, in response to public safety concern after numerous disasters such as the Great Chicago Fire. In 1915 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) published the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code in response to countless pressure vessel explosions during the industrial revolution, as steam power and compressed air became commonplace in industry. These codes were written to establish guidelines and rules to govern the design, engineering, and fabrication of commonly built items in an effort to improve safety of the general public and those building and working around them.
Over the past century, many organizations have been formed that have developed codes, guidelines and best practices, covering nearly every discipline. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has regulations that affect nearly every occupation in the United States. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) published over 300 codes, covering everything from fire detection equipment specifications, to electrical component selection and sizing, to procedures to test the performance of boiler components.
Codes are continuously evolving. When the Food and Drug Administration was established in 1906, there was no such thing as fast food. The FDA codes now cover things in such fine detail that there are regulations on what types of bandages can be worn by workers in a fast-food environment a concept that was inconceivable one hundred years ago.
But who writes these codes? In nearly all cases, the codes for a certain topic are written and updated by a large committee of experts in their field. Each section of each code has representation from people with great experience in different aspects of their area of expertise. There are usually senior members from suppliers, engineers, installers, fabricators, operators, and consumers that are all represented to ensure that the rules and best practices are best suited to be in everyone’s best interest.
So much knowledge and oversight goes into developing, reviewing and updating these different codes. This is done to ensure that they are easy to follow, cover nearly every aspect of design, engineering, and fabrication, and that they cover nearly every scenario in which they need to be utilized. They are, in nearly case, in nearly every organization, designed in a way to be complete and fool proof.
Sometimes, however mistakes happen with interpreting the codes. As much effort as the committees put in to making them perfect, they are developed, written, read, and followed by humans.
There are so many codes with so many volumes. Trying to ensure that your project meets its applicable codes is a lot of work. But it’s important to make sure that all jurisdictions are covered. If a propane tank is installed as part of an application, for example, this project must meet regulations defined by NFPA, the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code, OSHA, and any applicable local ordinances.
Codes are complex and large. They often written and arranged just like complex bills in government. In many instances, this makes sense, because the codes are the embodiments of the laws governing their discipline. Most people aren’t familiar with reading things in this format and finding the information that you’re looking for can be cumbersome and difficult, or just intimidating.
Codes are written by experts in their fields. Committee members have decades of experience in a certain area. These experts are working with other experts. These codes have specific requirements, and a lot of language that may be “engineering speak” or be in terms that are commonplace in that industry but are not used commonly. Changes to the codes are reviewed and verified by other experts. They are not typically set up such that anyone can understand them. To understand what the codes mean, it’s important to have some background in the topic.
Most importantly, to utilize the codes, it is imperative that you understand how they apply. ASME piping codes can walk anyone through choosing the size and schedule of pipe for an application. But the codes themselves don’t know that the material choice needs to be determined by the corrosive environment around the piping from a different process in your facility.
NFPA 85 (Boiler and Combustion Systems Hazards Code), for example, has specific details for the basis behind Burner Management System (BMS) interlocks, which prevent boiler implosion or explosion. The rules are laid out in text over 219 pages, with specific rules governing different types of burners, and broader rules covering all boilers. But it is up to people at each plant to determine which rules apply to them. It is up to each plant to read and understand what the rules mean, and how they apply to their system. Then, the rules need to be translated in to code, built into the control formula of their Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) or Burner Management System (BMS). All interlock devices need to respond exactly as the code states. But these devices need to operate as experts determined, as understood by a plant engineer, who relays that information to another engineer, who translates written word to computer logic, who hands this logic to a technician to make changes in a system’s Distributed Control System (DCS). Any misunderstanding, mis-interpretation, mis-communication, or mistake during this evolution, conveying a simple idea through detailed but not always straight forward information from code to implementation, could lead an unsafe situation.
If you’re working with codes for any reason, it’s likely that you’re working on a project or system that has a chance to be a safety risk for your personnel or the general public. Finding, deciphering, understanding, and implementing the information that you need can seem like a daunting task. It is important that if any questions arise, that you ask for assistance. Engineering firms, original equipment manufacturers, or coworkers can either help you understanding the various codes or can point you in the right direction.
Finally, if you have needed to rely on any building or design codes for your project, it is important to not only double check your own work, but have a peer or consultant verify your work. There could be a mistake in a calculation. But there also could be a mistake in interpretation or a typographical error. Or a safety jurisdictional area could have been overlooked altogether, which means it’s time to dig up another volume of another code, and get back to work, discovering, translating, and implementing more rules to keep everyone safe.