Weights and measures are indispensable. From the grocery store to the gas pump, all kinds of consumer products are sold by some measurable quantity, whether it's length, count, volume or weight. These values, the machines that measure them, and the people who measure the machines to ensure their accuracy are vital to every country's economic infrastructure.
To help celebrate the many ways that weights and measures contribute to the economy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Conference of Weights and Measures (NCWM), an organization that includes not only state and local regulators but also regulated industries and consumer interests, celebrate Weights and Measures Week the first week of March every year.
The two organizations work together to provide weights and measures enforcement officials and the public with the resources they needed to ensure that they are getting a fair price and are not being cheated.
For example, many people rushed in to take advantage of record high gold prices. And others rushed in to take advantage of the first group's naiveté about how gold is valued. Many unscrupulous dealers set up shifting "storefronts" in hotel lobbies and private homes. The NCWM set the record straight with the information alert, "Gold Prices Create 'Seller Beware' Market."
Weight also has become an issue for travelers in recent years as airlines have begun to charge extra for bags weighing over a certain amount. Now that the weight of a bag can cost passengers money, those scales, like every other measuring device used for conducting commerce, are checked for accuracy by weights and measures officials. Having an independent group monitoring the performance of these scales serves to establish trust, and that's invaluable when the difference in cost between a 50-pound bag and 51-pound bag costs between $40 and $100.
And as always, people should be sure to pay close attention when refueling vehicles or shopping at the grocery store or anywhere where goods are sold by weight, length, volume or count. Consumers should verify that the devices have been certified as working correctly by a licensed state inspector and start at zero. Consumers also should check their receipts to make sure that they have not been overcharged for items and that the listed store prices match the prices on the receipt. In addition to checking the accuracy or scales and other measuring devices, weights and measures officials in many states check to ensure that the scanned price matches the price listed on the shelves.
In all these cases, the state and local weights and measures officials get their calibration standards, training and testing procedures from NIST and NCWM via Handbook 44 and other NIST publications and training courses. NIST and NCWM also work together to write model laws and codes, published in Handbook 130, and Handbook 133, Checking the Net Content of Packaged Goods. These handbooks are adopted in whole or in part by the states, and are used as the basis for regulatory enforcement.
At an average cost of $0.70 per year per taxpayer, weight and measures officials are worth their weight in gold, sometimes literally.
Consumers who think they have found an unfair measuring device should contact their state weights and measures enforcement office (see www.nist.gov/pml/wmd/state-directors-ac.cfm.)
Web resources on NIST support for weights and measures inspectors and legal metrology:
Learn more about the NCWM at www.ncwm.net.