Certifiably Faked Inspections

February 9th, 2015

We received a medley of complaints from manufacturers over the last year, all claiming abuse by the Canadian Standards Association’s (CSA) field inspection process.  All these complaints are of a similar vein, that the inspection services they pay for -and are obligated by governments to pay for- don’t in practice take place.  We’ve received enough of these complaints from unrelated sources to have a pretty good idea what CSA’s field inspectors are up to.

In order to protect our sources from CSA retribution (yes, they’re known for that too), the identities of individuals and the particulars of products discussed below have been obscured.

Here’s what’s supposed to happen.  A manufacturer makes a lovely widget.  This widget, however lovely, requires CSA certification to be legally sold or installed.  The manufacturer must pay money to CSA, at whatever rate the CSA wishes, for CSA to not only test the widget, but also to inspect the facility in which the widget was fabricated.  This latter part is called a field inspection.

So, two things to note;  First, these manufacturers are a captive market for CSA, they are obligated to have CSA certification or they’re out of business, and;  Second, the CSA makes the standards governing the widget and the inspection, so the CSA decides the service levels that they’re obligated to provide as well as the prices they’ll charge, while manufacturers have no choice in either matter.

Here’s what happens in practice.  “I received a telephone call from Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith of CSA International [not their real names].”  The CSA’s Mr. Jones mentioned that their field inspector had routinely “spent three and a half hours at our facility” for inspection purposes.  “My reply was ‘never’.”  Mr. Jones had never actually been to this facility, nor had any other CSA official, yet somehow the CSA managed to generate detailed inspection reports summarizing the compliances witnessed at the facilities they’d never visited.  And this, folks, is pretty typical of CSA field inspections.

One manufacturer got snooty with CSA.  The CSA claimed a long history of regular site inspections at the manufacturer’s facility and the manufacturer, knowing that few -if any- inspections had actually happened, demanded to see the inspection reports.  This was a no-no.  The CSA claims that manufacturers have no right to access the reports that these manufacturers paid for and which cover their own facilities.  Exasperated, one company challenged the CSA to review their own inspectors’ time cards, as “checking the number of inspections that day by the inspector should prove this to be false.”  But CSA wasn’t interested.

Then there’s the hours of time involved in actual inspecting.  You see, some inspections of a sort do take place, the inspectors have to do something with their time.  “The average time per inspection used to be 10 to 15 minutes,” said one manufacturer, but “now it has increased to approximately one hour, [and] this in spite of the fact the equipment has not changed.”  So why does it take longer?

Well, some manufacturers are better conversationalists than others.  “The CSA inspector arrives on a Monday and spend an hour chatting in the lunchroom, then ran back to his office, he never set foot in the shop.”  And this is the shop he was supposed to be inspecting.  For this, CSA “charges [several] thousand dollars per visit, plus [several more] thousand for CSA maintenance fees, plus [several hundred] dollars for anti-counterfeiting dues.”  Think that’s bad?  Recall that CSA site inspections of certain manufacturers are required four times per year, once per quarter.  “Then, on Tuesday, the next day, the same guy comes back and spends another hour talking with me in the lunchroom.”  That’s two inspections, the inspector records these as covering two different quarters, though usually both dates are in the same quarter.  “Two shop inspections without actually visiting the shop.” 

This is typical.  “Sometimes [he] doesn’t even inspect the unit, not even viewing the unit as part of [his] inspection.”  So, we asked, what’s the maintenance fee for?  Replied the manufacturer;  “I don’t know.”

Actually, we do know.  The reality is that the maintenance fee, as with the inspection fee and the anti-counterfeiting fee (which is especially ironic, given CSA’s conduct) are not actually connected to any maintenance or inspections or anti-counterfeiting activities.  These manufactures must have CSA certification, so CSA can charge whatever it likes and they’ll get paid, even if no actual inspection takes place.  In the words of one manager, “its extortion, they can take what they want and we’re powerless to fight back.”  Indeed, the CSA has the power to prevent manufacturers’ products from being sold, the CSA can force them out of business on grounds as flimsy as their inspections.

And that’s pretty significant.  The manufacturer mentioned above who’d complained about the CSA practice of inspecting his shop from the lunchroom speaks of having to “perform” for CSA four times per year.  That is, he makes nice, talks about whatever the CSA inspector wants to talk about, never says anything contrary, never mentions the purpose of the visit.  He can’t afford to.  Its like talking to a mob enforcer, being nice is what you have to do to keep your little business in business.

Some companies tried complaining to the Standards Council of Canada (SCC).  The CSA reports to the Minister of Industry through the SCC, the latter being a sort of regulatory clearing house established in 1970.  In practice however, the SCC is an affiliate of the CSA, the head of the SCC is actually a former CSA executive.  Its like musical chairs, Federal civil servants trade places from time to time but their loyalties are ultimately to their own interests.  As a result, somehow the CSA magically heard about manufacturers’ complaints to the SCC and the CSA’s treatment of them became more severe.  How severe?  Well, for starters, the costs went up and the service, inasmuch as one can call it service, was further decreased.  Oh, and CSA competence, inasmuch as one can call it competence, went down too.  In one case, an “uncooperative” manufacturer was told that, going forward, their products would have to comply with a particular standard that wasn’t applicable to the product in question and, worse, was so far out of alignment with that product that compliance was actually impossible.  It was like demanding vehicle fuel economy compliance from a houseplant.  But the CSA can withhold certifications, delay product releases and, in effect, punish manufacturers who go public with CSA conduct. 

On another occasion, a different “uncooperative” manufacturer’s product range was going to be seriously affected by a new CSA standard.  In their words, “we were asked to comment on this [standard] approximately eight months after submissions were closed.”  That’s political timing for you.

It should be clear why manufacturers are talking to us.  The CSA is an entitled government Agency, of equal parts arrogance and incompetence and treating people like subjects and servants.  Quite a few of these subjects are quite cross about it.  Indeed, nobody who deals with the mob enjoys the experience, they publicly praise the bosses as leaders in the community and they privately loathe them, quietly working with anyone willing to fight.

Well, we fight.  We have weapons at the ready and more on the way and this whole war will shortly escalate.  Until then, we’re all stuck dealing with the dullards, making their trumped up payments and meeting their jumped up people, and for manufacturers, until we restore this Federal Agency to the rule of law, the “CSA comes every quarter and does nothing.”