What is the IEC?

As the electrical industry continues to grow and expand into a global economy, it is imperative that electrical safety not be compromised by the ongoing efforts to harmonize codes and standards worldwide.

“International codes are being proposed for adoption in this country which do not even include an inspection process, relying instead on self-certification of manufacturers and installers. We need to be sure that global free trade doesn’t result in unsafe electrical products and installations.” This was a statement made by the 1998 IAEI International President in an article addressing what the organization has done, what it’s doing that’s new and what is being proposed for the immediate future. He was proposing that the IAEI needed to be more actively involved in international activities that affect the electrical inspection community and the overall electrical industry. He specifically referred to the importance of IAEI representation on the committees of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).


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As IAEI continues to expand its membership globally, more and more of the inspection community will encounter IEC standards in the field. This article will be published as a three part series to provide a basic understanding of the IEC, its standards making process and its impact on world trade and the North American Electrical Safety System.

This first part of the series includes information that is necessary to understand what the IEC is and how it operates. It is important to understand the IEC because each of us will be affected by it.

What is the IEC?

Founded in 1906, the International Electrotechnical Commission is a standards development organization (SDO) that prepares and publishes standards for electrical, electronic and related technologies. The IEC was originally formed by a resolution of the Chamber of Government Delegates to the September 1904 St. Louis (USA) meeting of the International Electrical Congress. The very first IEC Statutes were drawn up at a preliminary meeting in London in 1906 and were adopted in 1908. The IEC membership now consists of more than fifty participating countries, including all the world’s major trading areas and a number of industrializing countries.

The IEC is currently based in Geneva, Switzerland. The seat of the Commission is under the rule of the IEC Council, which is the legislative body of the IEC.

Its Mission

The IEC’s mission is to promote international cooperation on all questions of electrotechnical standardization and other related matters such as the verification of conformity to standards and thus to promote international understanding.


As mentioned earlier, there are over fifty participating nations in the IEC. There are two ways countries can actively participate in the IEC’s work. One is a full membership, which allows countries the ability of participating fully in the international standards activities. Full members are National Committees, such as the US National Committee (USNC), which each has equal voting rights. For North America, the US, Canada and Mexico are all participating members.

The second way to participate is as an associate member. This allows for limited participation for countries that have limited resources. Associate members have observer status, can participate in all IEC meetings, but have no voting rights.

When a National Committee becomes a member, it agrees to open access and balanced representation for all private and public electrotechnical interests in its respective country.


The IEC’s governing structure is comprised of managerial, executive and advisory bodies and officers as shown below. In order to get a basic understanding of the structure, a brief description of each function is provided following the chart.

IEC Council: The Council is the uppermost authority of the IEC. It is the general assembly of all the National Committees. The Council sets all IEC policy and strategic and financial objectives. The Council is the legislative body and is made up of the IEC officers, past-presidents of the IEC and the presidents of the full member National Committees.

Council Board: The Council delegates all of the management of IEC work to the Council Board (CB). The CB implements all of the IEC Council policy and makes further recommendations to the policy. A decision making body, the CB is comprised of the IEC Officers and 15 voting members which are elected by the Council.

Executive Committee: The Executive Committee (ExCo) is made up of all the IEC officers. It is responsible for implementing the Council and Council Boards decisions and supervising the operation of the IEC Central Office in Geneva.

Management Advisory Committees: There are four advisory committees (future technologies, marketing, sales policy and finance) that advise the president, the treasurer and the CB on various issues relating to the functioning of the IEC.

Committee of Action: The Committee of Action (CA) is a decision-making body responsible for the management of the IEC’s standards work. The CA is basically responsible for the overall functioning of the Technical Committees and their work. It is comprised of a chairman, the IEC general secretary and 15 members (alternates) elected by Council.

Sector Boards: Sector Boards are responsible for advising on priorities and ensuring the continuing market relevance of IEC standards. They work with all technical committees in a specific industry sector to ensure coherence at a systems level. They are made up of senior executives with market awareness that can provide strategic guidance.

Technical Advisory Boards: There are four Committee of Action Technical Advisory Committees that help to ensure horizontal coordination and inclusion of relevant requirements in IEC standards. These committees cover electronics and telecommunications, safety, electromagnetic compatibility and the environment.

Conformity Assessment Board: A decision-making body, the Conformity Assessment Board (CAB) is responsible for the overall management of the IEC’s conformity assessment activities. It is comprised of a chairman, 12 voting members elected by Council, one representative from each conformity assessment scheme, the IEC treasurer and general secretary.

Central Office: The Central Office is responsible for ensuring the progress of work by supporting the Technical Committees and Subcommittees as well as the National Committees. The staff ensures project management, transmission of working documents and the final publication of standards.

Technical Committees and Subcommittees: The Technical Committees (TCs)/subcommittees (SCs) prepare technical documents on specific subjects within their scope. A technical committee is made up of National Committee members. All National Committees are free to take part in any of the work of the TCs. If a TC finds that its scope is too broad to be handled by the overall TC, it may set up subcommittees for the individual areas within its scope. The SCs then report back to the main TC. When work needs to be even further defined, working groups may be set up to investigate specific issues.


Now that we’ve gone through the grueling task of understanding the overall IEC and its structure, it’s really important to acknowledge the enormity of its participation. There are over 200 technical committees and subcommittees and some 200 working groups. In total, over 10,000 experts worldwide participate in the technical work of the IEC.

The next two articles will address the standards development process and the relationship of the IEC to world trade and the North American electrical safety system. These articles will be more focused on where and how IAEI members can participate and the overall impact on the inspection community.