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Spotlight on accreditation standards: the importance of ISO/IEC 17020 for the accreditation of inspection bodies

In today’s global marketplace, ensuring the quality and safety of products, processes, and services is of utmost importance. Inspection plays a vital role in this, providing independent verification and validation of compliance with standards and regulations. To ensure the competence and impartiality of inspection bodies, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) collaborated to develop ISO/IEC 17020:2012. This international standard sets out the requirements for the operation of various types of bodies performing inspection.

ISO/IEC 17020 establishes a framework for inspection bodies to demonstrate their technical competence, independence, and ability to provide reliable inspection services. Accreditation to this standard not only enhances the reputation and credibility of inspection bodies but also facilitates access to global markets by reducing technical barriers to trade.

Understanding ISO/IEC 17020

ISO/IEC 17020 specifies the requirements that inspection bodies must meet to achieve and maintain competence in the areas specified in the scope below. These requirements cover various aspects of an inspection body’s operations, including its organisational structure, management system, personnel competence, inspection processes, and quality assurance practices.

Scope of ISO/IEC 17020

ISO/IEC 17020 applies to inspection bodies of type A, B, or C, as defined in the standard. Type A bodies are independent from the parties involved in the inspection, while type B and C bodies may have a different level of independence. It should be noted that being designated type A,B or C is equivalent and does not demonstrate one is better than the other. The standard covers the activities of inspection bodies whose work can include the examination of materials, products, installations, plants, processes, work procedures or services, and the determination of their conformity with requirements and the subsequent reporting of results. Inspection can concern all stages during the lifetime of these items, including the design stage.

Management systems

ISO/IEC 17020 emphasises the importance of establishing and maintaining a robust management system within an inspection body. This includes policy and procedural documentation, document control systems, internal audits, management reviews, and processes for continuous improvement. By implementing a management system aligned with the requirements of ISO/IEC 17020, inspection bodies can ensure consistency, efficiency, and effectiveness in their operations.

Importance of accreditation

Accreditation is a voluntary process through which a national accreditation body evaluates the competence of an inspection body against specific criteria. Accreditation provides independent assurance that the inspection body operates in accordance with recognised standards and meets internationally accepted best practices. It enhances the credibility and reliability of inspection results, instilling confidence in customers, regulators, and other stakeholders.

Accreditation enables inspection bodies to showcase their technical competence, impartiality, and commitment to providing reliable inspection services. Accredited inspection bodies may use specific symbols or marks to indicate their accreditation status, further enhancing their reputation and visibility in the marketplace.

The accreditation process

The process of accreditation involves a thorough assessment of an inspection body’s compliance with ISO/IEC 17020 requirements. National accreditation bodies, such as UKAS (within the United Kingdom) evaluate the technical competence, impartiality, and reliability of inspection bodies through a combination of document review, on-site / remote assessments, and if appropriate proficiency testing, and inter-laboratory comparisons.

The assessment process typically includes a review of the inspection body’s management system including independence type, competence of personnel, inspection procedures, equipment calibration and maintenance, quality control measures, and handling of complaints and appeals. Successful accreditation demonstrates that an inspection body meets the requirements of ISO/IEC 17020 and operates in a manner consistent with best practices.

Access to global markets

Accreditation to ISO/IEC 17020 plays a crucial role in facilitating international trade. Many countries and regions require products, processes, and services to be inspected by accredited bodies to ensure compliance with regulations and standards. By obtaining accreditation, inspection bodies can demonstrate their compliance with internationally recognised requirements, thereby reducing technical barriers to trade.

Accredited inspection bodies are recognised and accepted globally, making it easier for businesses to access new markets and expand their customer base. Accreditation provides assurance to importers, regulators, and consumers that the products they receive have undergone appropriate and competent inspection and meet the required standards of quality and safety.

Risks of unaccredited inspection

Engaging with unaccredited inspection bodies carries significant risks for businesses and consumers alike. Without accreditation, there is no independent verification of an inspection body’s competence and impartiality. This raises concerns about the credibility and reliability of inspection results, potentially leading to substandard or unsafe products entering the market.

Unaccredited inspection bodies may lack the necessary technical expertise, quality control measures, and adherence to internationally recognised standards. Their inspection reports may not be accepted by regulators or customers, resulting in delays, rejections, and financial losses for businesses. Furthermore, reliance on unaccredited inspection bodies undermines the integrity of the inspection process and erodes trust in the marketplace.

Benefits of accredited inspection

Accreditation to ISO/IEC 17020 offers numerous benefits to inspection bodies, businesses, and consumers. Some of the key benefits include:

  1. Enhanced reputation: Accreditation demonstrates an inspection body’s commitment to quality, competence, and impartiality. It enhances the reputation and credibility of the inspection body, instilling confidence in customers and stakeholders.
  2. Access to new markets: Accredited inspection bodies are recognised and accepted globally. This facilitates access to new markets, both domestically and internationally, by meeting the requirements of regulators and importers.
  3. Reduced risk: Accredited inspection provides assurance that products, processes, or services comply with applicable standards and regulations. It reduces the risk of non-compliance, product recalls, and potential harm to consumers.
  4. Improved efficiency: Accredited inspection bodies operate in accordance with recognised best practices, leading to improved efficiency and effectiveness in their inspection processes. This results in faster turnaround times, reduced costs, and increased customer satisfaction.
  5. Competitive advantage: Accreditation sets inspection bodies apart from their competitors. It demonstrates their commitment to quality, competence, and reliability, giving them a competitive edge in the marketplace.
  6. Confidence in inspection results: Accredited inspection provides confidence in the credibility and reliability of inspection results. It ensures that the inspection body operates independently and impartially, reducing the risk of bias or conflict of interest.

ISO/IEC 17020 is a fundamental standard for inspection bodies, providing a framework for demonstrating technical competence, independence, and reliability. Accreditation to this standard enhances the reputation and credibility of inspection bodies, facilitating access to global markets and reducing technical barriers to trade. By engaging with accredited inspection bodies, businesses can ensure the quality and safety of their products, processes, and services, thereby protecting their customers and their brand. Accredited inspection plays a vital role in fostering trust and confidence in the marketplace, contributing to the overall goal of ensuring consumer protection and promoting fair trade.