Industry Struggles to Get a Grip on '90 Fastener Quality Act

Article excerpt

Nuts, bolts and rivets keep things together, but they have kept friends and foes of the Fastener Quality Act of 1990 far, far apart for more than seven years.

The law was designed to tighten regulations on the $6 billion fastener industry and prevent the sale of dangerous, poorly made nuts, bolts and rivets.

But after more than seven years, the act has never been enforced or even drafted into regulations. Indeed, the nuts-and-bolts debate in Washington has dragged on so long that technology improvements probably will make the new regulations obsolete before they ever take effect.

Still, the story goes on. The continuing saga of the Fastener Quality Act is a case study in the stiff resistance that U.S. business executives are exerting against new federal regulations these days and the new complications regulators face in the international marketplace.

Fasteners are everywhere. They range from a 25-cent part used in a lawnmower to a $10,000 bolt that holds the propeller on a battleship.

"They're in the plane you flew in on, the car you drove to work in and the desk you're sitting at," says Robert J. Harris, managing director of the Cleveland-based Industrial Fasteners Institute, which represents U.S. fastener makers.

The institute represents 105 fastener manufacturers and 50 suppliers in the United States, Canada and Mexico - companies that account for 85 percent of the production capacity in North America.

LAYING THE BLAME

Problems in the industry surfaced during the 1980s when investigators concluded that counterfeit nuts and bolts were to blame for a series of accidents in U.S. industry and the military.

In one case, a construction worker fell to his death when a deficient bolt broke off a steel truss while he was trying to tighten it. In another, a bad screw caused the gun to blow off an M-60 tank when it was fired.

The issue attracted the attention of powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat. In 1988 Mr. Dingell's congressional staff wrapped up an 18-month investigation with a report titled "The Threat From Substandard Fasteners: Is America Losing Its Grip?"

The report blamed the problems mostly on low-cost manufacturers in Asia and other foreign countries. Some of those companies, investigators found, were selling through American distributors, falsely claiming their fasteners met the high standards for strength and precision required by the Pentagon.

Mr. Dingell and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, pushed through legislation that would require manufacturers to test their fasteners when they were to be used for "critical" applications, then certify that they met the required standards.

President Bush signed the act in 1990, but that was just the beginning.

The job of drafting the fastener regulations fell to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The Gaithersburg agency put together a committee composed of fastener manufacturers and distributors to advise it.

From the start, the committee was riven by a dispute between domestic manufacturers and foreign importers. U.S. companies supported the initiative, but importers insisted they were being scapegoated and saw the new law as a thinly veiled attempt to ban them from the American market.

"The law as originally written would have put us out of business," said Bill Hayes, president of a small, Hawaiian fastener import company called Hawaii Nut & Bolt Inc. "It came close to barring anything short of domestic production."

The committee's two-year charter ended up dragging on for six years. Mr. Hayes estimates he spent $237,000 flying back and forth to Washington for advisory meetings during that time.

"We started with the government's perception, and then had to change their mind or attempt to change their mind after a law had already been written," Mr. …