by Natalia Larrimer
Accreditation is an internationally accepted independent oversight process for maintaining operational standards and ensuring confidence. It is accepted by many governments as well as private industries, and numerous government agencies and industries around the world have actually mandated accreditation by internationally recognized accrediting bodies for their programs.
Internationally recognized accreditation is based on international standards. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) coordinates the development of standards used worldwide. ISO is an independent, nongovernmental organization with a membership of national bodies, responsible for developing and publishing international standards. Technical committees within ISO are responsible for developing specific standards, with each country deciding on its level of participation in committees of interest.
ISO’s Committee on Conformity Assessment (ISO/CASCO) is responsible for developing standards used in conformity assessment. Examples of such standards include ISO/IEC 17021-1, Conformity assessment – Requirements for bodies providing audit and certification of management systems – Part 1: Requirements; ISO/IEC 17021-3, Conformity assessment – Requirements for bodies providing audit and certification of management systems – Part 3: Competence requirements for auditing and certification of quality management systems; ISO/IEC 17024, Conformity assessment – General requirements for bodies operating certification of persons; and others.
ISO does not provide accreditation or certification services and ISO standards are not specifically developed for accredited certification. Because of this, a certified organization must exercise care when referring to its certification to an ISO standard. Use of the terms “ISO certified,” “ISO registered,” and “ISO compliant” is not allowed, nor is use of the ISO logo. The appropriate term when referring to certification, for example, includes the specific standard: a company is not ISO certified, but it may have an ISO 9001-certified management system.
Certification is a third-party attestation related to products, processes, systems, or persons. Some of the best known management systems certification standards include ISO 9001, ISO 14001, and ISO 22000.
Just because an organization claims to meet an ISO standard, it does not mean that verification of its operations has been conducted in accordance with internationally accepted requirements. Many steps must be completed before an organization can claim accredited certification. It is through accreditation that a certificaiton body’s (CB) conformance to the requirements of ISO/IEC 17021-1 is verified. The standard includes principles and requirements for the competence, consistency, and impartiality specifically for organizations providing audit and certification of all types of management systems.
Although there is flexibility for a CB to design its certification process within the constraints of ISO/IEC 17021-1, the standard to which all internationally recognized CBs must conform, some aspects are mandatory. An example of a certification process is below.
Because accredited certification is performed in accordance with internationally accepted requirements, it builds confidence and reduces risk for consumers, facilitates global trade, and eliminates the cost associated with multiple certifications.
Accreditation is the process of ensuring that the conformity assessment body (CAB) has the necessary technical competence to perform a specific task and has met and continues to meet a specific set of operational requirements. An accreditation body (AB) uses internationally established techniques and procedures to assess CABs against recognized standards to ensure their impartiality, competence, and ability to produce consistently reliable and technically sound results.
Accreditation provides formal recognition that an organization is competent to perform specific tasks. It provides an independent assessment of the CAB against recognized standards. Accreditation provides assurance to a CAB’s customers and industry that the CAB continuously operates according to internationally accepted criteria applicable to CAB’s scope of accreditation.
Although there is also flexibility for an AB to design its accreditation process, it must be within the constraints of ISO/IEC 17011, Conformity assessment – General requirements for accreditation bodies accrediting conformity assessment bodies, the standard to which all internationally recognized ABs must conform with a number of mandatory aspects. An example of an accreditation process is below.
As part of the application process, the applicant for accreditation submits information about the desired scope of accreditation and its documented quality management system. The AB conducts a document review to verify that the applicant has documented all management system requirements specified in the relevant criteria and any other applicable requirements. Additional requirements could include, for example, those mandated by a specific regulatory authority or industry. During the assessment, through witnessing of the CAB conducting a conformity assessment activity, interviews of personnel, and review of records and other objective evidence, the AB’s assessment team verifies the CAB’s technical competence and implementation of the quality management system.
The applicant is required to provide corrective action for all identified deficiencies. Only after all identified issues have been addressed can the accreditation decision process begin. To ensure that the accreditation decision is impartial, members of the assessment team do not take part in the decision. The designated decision maker, which may be a group or an individual, is responsible for reviewing the assessment team’s recommendation and ensuring that all accreditation requirements have been met by the applicant and are properly documented before granting accreditation.
A certificate and scope of accreditation are issued only after a favorable accreditation decision. Once accredited, the CAB is regularly re-assessed to ensure continued conformance to the accreditation requirements, and to confirm that the required standard of operation is being maintained.
To ensure transparency, the AB is required to make publicly available information on the status and scope of accreditation for each accredited CAB. Any changes occurring after initial accreditation, such as suspension for all or part of the scope of accreditation, are published on the AB’s website.
While ABs provide oversight for CABs, internationally recognized ABs are themselves subject to regular oversight from organizations orchestrating the harmonization and recognition of the accreditation process globally.
The International Accreditation Forum (IAF) is one organization that provides this international oversight. ABs that are signatories of the IAF Multilateral Recognition Arrangement (MLA) must conform with the requirements of ISO/IEC 17011 and any applicable program-specific requirements. MLA signatories are admitted to the agreements for a specific capability, for example, as an accreditor for ISO 9001 certification bodies. The AB’s technical competence and conformance to requirements are verified through a rigorous on-site evaluation by trained members of the IAF community.
Without international oversight, there would be no evidence or confirmation that an AB operates in accordance with international requirements when providing oversight of accredited CABs. This oversight provides assurance that the AB understands the CAB’s process and can attest to the CAB’s competence.
The IAF MLA agreement is an internationally recognized form of approval; signatories have demonstrated their compliance with specified standards and requirements. Accreditation by a signatory of the IAF MLA provides assurance that decisions are based on reliable results, thus minimizing risk. MLA signatory ABs are also able to sublicense to their accredited CBs the use of IAF MLA mark.
The diagram below illustrates the hierarchy of the oversight using management systems certification as an example.
Accredited certification within the MLA process provides assurance that the organizations involved are competent and conform to applicable international standards. It helps regulators meet their legislative responsibilities by providing assurance that conformity assessment results are issued by organizations whose technical competence and compliance with specified criteria has been verified by an independent third party. It provides assurance to stakeholders, such as the regulatory authorities, that the accredited CAB and certified organization operate in accordance with recognized and accepted criteria.
Accredited certification provides benefits not just to specifiers and industry but also to certified organizations. It lends assurance that work is performed correctly and to appropriate standards and provides a benchmark for maintaining competence. For organizations with multiple sites, accredited certification can provide assurance that each site operates according to the same standards and with the same rigor.
Accreditation services increasingly are becoming an integral part of business operations.
As business competition increases, accreditation is a means for specifiers to assure work is conducted by technically competent organizations and allows suppliers to distinguish their products and abilities by marketing internationally recognized accredited services.
Some of the questions to ask when relying on certification as a qualification:
- Is the CB that issued the certificate accredited for the scope of certification?
- Is the accreditation from an AB signatory of the IAF MLA for the applicable scope, if one exists (e.g., ISO 9001, ISO 14001, or ISO 22000)?
- Is the CB, AB, or certified organization currently under suspension?
Typically, these questions can be answered through information publicly available on a website or by contacting IAF, the AB, or the CB, depending on the question.
In summary, IAF-recognized accredited certification provides competence, integrity, impartiality, and independence.
About the author
Natalia Larrimer is responsible for developing and advancing accreditation programs with the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB). Natalia’s primary responsibility is working with industry and client groups, international organizations and the U.S. government to develop sector-specific conformity assessment and accreditation programs and to promote the use of the international IAF-ILAC system and independent third-party accreditation programs.
Prior to joining ANAB in August 2014, Natalia spent more than ten years working with Standards Council of Canada (SCC), the Canadian multi-disciplinary accreditation body, where she started in the national and international standard development group. She then moved to accreditation services, where she managed accounts of global certification organizations within the voluntary and Canadian and U.S. regulatory frameworks. She is an experienced assessor and trainer for a number of accreditation standards.
Her portfolio includes work at the national level with standards-developing committees such as the U.S. Technical Advisory Group (TAG) to ISO Technical Committee 176 for ISO 9001 and the U.S. TAG to ISO Technical Committee 207 for ISO 14001. She also delivers educational sessions on sector-specific programs, accreditation, and international accreditation frameworks. In addition, Natalia has been involved in international organizations such as the International Accreditation Forum (IAF), International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC), and InterAmerican Accreditation Cooperation (IAAC).