International Organization for Standardization (ISO) management system standards have been adopted by more than 430,000 organizations in 158 countries, according to the group. But most of the action is occurring outside of North America.

At the end of 2000, at least 408,631 ISO 9000 (quality standard) certificates had been awarded in 158 countries - with 54 percent awarded to companies in Europe compared to only 12 percent going to firms in North America.

ISO's environmental management standard (14000) was first published in 1996. By the end of 2000, the total number of certificates awarded was 22,897. Europe accounted for 48 percent of certified companies; the Far East, 34 percent; and North America, seven percent.

Why the lagging ISO interest in North America? Many smaller companies don't feel the need to meet Europe's market-driven demands for ISO conformity. Plus, many U.S. companies already have internal management systems and see no need to pay for ISO certification. Finally, there's that "don't tell me how to run my shop" cultural mindset among U.S. companies that OSHA standards-setters are all too familiar with.

Still, many U.S. businesses believe in the benefits of management systems - the structure and consistency and opportunities for continuous improvement through evaluations they can bring to operations. Just look at the growth in participation in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program: 598 worksites were enrolled in federal VPP by the end of 2001, compared to only 83 in 1991. Another 207 sites were enrolled in state plan VPP efforts.