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Perspective: Weights and Measures Week 2014 — Making Sure the Marketplace Measures Up

condemned scales
Scales condemned by the Seattle Department of Weights and Measures, 1917.
Credit: Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives/Creative Commons

Commentary by mark.esser [at] (Mark Esser).

Every year, we hear scattered stories of inaccurate measures. Gas pumps, grocery scales, grocery scanners, incorrectly labeled products. Considering the many thousands of devices in the average inspector's jurisdiction, it's a testament to the tenacity of the weights and measures officials that we don't hear these stories more often.

Incorrect measures are not always the result of criminal activity. The world is an imperfect place, and these devices get out of whack. It's the job of the weights and measures inspector to see that many different scales are put right again.

Weights and Measures Week is held March 1-7 every year to commemorate President John Adams's signing of the first U.S. weights and measures law on March 2, 1799. The National Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM) has declared this year's Weights and Measures Week will be a celebration of our weights and measures officials, the women and men who work every day to make sure the marketplace measures up.

One of the principal reasons Congress founded the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 1901 was to provide definitive standards for weights and measures to regulate interstate and international commerce. At the time, there were eight different measures for the gallon, at least four different feet, and a hodgepodge of other measurements that varied from state to state, and sometimes even within states.

While states worked to ensure that their markets were fair to businesses and consumers alike, there were no definitive standards and no national infrastructure to calibrate measuring and weighing instruments. All people could do was hope that they were getting a fair deal.

While this may have worked to some degree on the state and local levels, interstate and international transactions were another story. Buyers, sellers ... no one could be sure if they were getting their money's worth. And the unscrupulous fed on this uncertainty.

NIST, or the National Bureau of Standards as it was known at that time, established the National Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM) in 1905 to put the marketplace on a fair and firm foundation and give the burgeoning network of state weights and measures officials the tools they needed to do their jobs.

NIST still performs these services today and is constantly working to deliver the highest quality training to inspectors wherever they are.

In the past year, the NIST Office of Weights and Measures (OWM) has achieved an "Authorized Provider" accreditation from the International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET). IACET Authorized Providers are the only organizations approved to offer IACET Continuing Education Units (CEUs), which certify that IACET has evaluated the NIST OWM training program and found it to be compliant with internationally accepted standards.

Many states require that their weights and measures officials receive training throughout their careers. Using an accredited training organization gives those officials confidence that the training they will receive is of high quality.

The NIST OWM has, and continues to expand, their online offerings to better accommodate their customers' schedules and budgets. NIST has trained more than 600 weights and measures personnel in the past year.

And while NIST enjoys the opportunity to train weights and measures inspectors directly, our annual capacity is limited. So, NIST is teaming with the NCWM to "train the trainers." This invitation-only effort will teach select weights and measures officials to become great teachers and provide them with a professional certification as proof.

Forty people have successfully completed the Train the Trainer in the past year.

"I had one of our trained instructors tell me just last week how they have applied concepts from our measurement courses and instructional methods into all of the other training they are doing and what an impact it has had," says NIST program leader Georgia Harris. "They have been able to train hundreds of other measurement professionals in the past couple of years, including applying these concepts in other measurement fields such as forensics. Our train the trainer effort has a multiplying effect—we've trained one and they can each train hundreds!"

Our weights and measures inspectors are an integral part of the American economy. They are our foot soldiers out on the streets and in the stores every day making sure everything measures up. If you see one this week at the gas station or the grocery store, please remember to say hello and say thanks.

Released February 25, 2014, Updated January 18, 2023