How standards shape every aspect of our modern lives

From shipping containers to yoga mats to a piece of A4 paper, without the global network of standards-setting organisations, our lives would be very different, writes Len Williams

Workers prepare PPE at a factory in Yangzhou, China
Workers prepare PPE at a factory in Yangzhou, China

For much of 2020, Nathan Shipley and his colleagues have been conducting curious tests on face masks in a Hemel Hempstead laboratory. “We atomise paraffin oil and sodium chloride [salt] so it is in very small particles suspended in the air. We then suck that air through the mask and measure to see how much has been filtered out.”

Shipley is a PPE testing specialist at the British Standards Institute (BSI), a body which conducts standards tests for thousands of products. The team usually tests personal protective equipment (PPE) for industrial use, but has reconfigured their processes to assess which masks and face screens can be redeployed in a clinical setting – and protect the wearer from Covid-19. If a mask filters out any less than 94 per cent of particulates in the air, it will not pass their tests.

The BSI and organisations like it are part of a wider ecosystem of standards bodies that have a profound influence on global trade and the lives of almost everyone on Earth. If you have ever used a credit card, browsed a website, received a phone call, printed a document or indeed used practically any product or service, your life has been touched by standards bodies. Yet despite the reach and influence of these organisations, most people have never heard of them.

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