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Current Affairs

Jim Wallace of Seaward Electronic Ltd. urges the need for employers to take a common sense approach to ensuring the safety of electrical equipment, as any cutbacks on safety procedures carry considerable risks.

With HSE reporting around 1,000 workplace electrical accidents and 25 deaths each year, reducing the dangers associated with the use of unsafe electrical appliances in the workplace is of vital importance. Fires started by poor electrical installations and faulty appliances also cause many more deaths and injuries - and considerable disruption to business activities.

Nevertheless, in pursuit of maintaining cost efficiencies during difficult economic times, health and safety procedures are often among the first activities to be reviewed for cost cutting purposes.

However, before taking any action in this respect, company owners should fully understand their obligations and the risks associated with any short circuiting of proper health and safety procedures.

Employers have a duty of care obligation under the Health and Safety At Work Act 1974 to ensure the electrical safety of all those using their premises.

As well as facing penalties from the HSE, those that ignore their responsibilities not only put their employees and customers at risk, but may also invalidate their commercial insurance policies and liability protection.

In addition, the introduction the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act also makes it easier to convict organisations guilty of negligence - with fines of more than 10% of turnover with no upper limit one of the penalties in waiting.

Also, earlier this year the Health and Safety (Offences) Act came into effect, increasing penalties for health and safety offences. As a result, the maximum penalties for health and safety offences to £20,000 for most offences and with imprisonment becoming an option for offences committed by individuals.

For any organisations contemplating a less rigorous approach to health safety in the interests of cutting costs, the stakes have therefore never been higher.

The legal requirements relating to the use and maintenance of electrical equipment in the workplace are contained in the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 (EAWR). Regulation 4(2) of the EAWR requires that all electrical systems are maintained so as to prevent danger.

This requirement covers all items of electrical equipment including fixed, portable and transportable equipment. Crucially Regulation 29 adds that a suitable defence is proof that all reasonable steps and due diligence were exercised in avoiding unsafe regulations.

In response to this situation, the IEE's Code of Practice for In-Service Inspection and Testing recommends that maintenance of electrical equipment is carried out in four stages - visual inspection, a test to verify earth continuity, a test to verify insulation and a functional test.

Electrical portable appliances are often roughly handled when moved from place to place, operate in a variety of environments and in many instances have more arduous and onerous usage compared to fixed equipment. As a result, at any time around 20% of electrical appliances used in workplaces could require re-testing to ensure that they do not pose a hazard to users.

Workplace safety programmes must therefore be capable of detecting potential problems with electrical appliances before they occur. For example, how can gradual deterioration in the electrical integrity of power tool, kitchen appliance or piece of IT equipment be diagnosed?

The emphasis on maintaining a safe working environment is therefore constant and some examples of the sort of horror stories uncovered by periodic inspection and test programmes illustrate this point perfectly.

For example, one public sector employer now insists that all faulty equipment must have the whole lead cut off as close to the appliance as possible. This is the result of an earlier situation when a caretaker rewired a plug onto an appliance that had previously had the plug removed after failing its regular test. The failed but reconnected appliance was then responsible for causing a fire causing thousands of pounds worth of damage.

In an engineering company, factory workers risked their lives by continually replacing a fuse that persistently failed in a power tool with a solid metal bar, rather than raise the issue and question why the fuse was always blowing. The temporary modification was uncovered during a periodic portable appliance test.

Warehouse equipment when left around floor areas can be particularly liable to cable damage from fork lift trucks. In one case a warehouse operative preferred to continue to use an electric drill with exposed wires rather than admit that it had been left out and damaged.

Even in offices, employees have been found to be taping up cracked power packs with cellotape rather than having them replaced. Elsewhere, in a school laboratory, a safety engineer had to take all the soldering out of service after the students had used them to burn through their own plugs.

All of these highly dangerous situations would not have been detected without the presence of regular inspection and testing procedures.

Although many obvious defects can be identified by visual checks, inspection, needs to be linked with a programme of testing to reveal potentially invisible electrical faults such as earth continuity, insulation integrity, correct polarity, unacceptable earth leakage and other potential problems.

Of course the need for establishing effective safety measures has to be balanced against practical aspects; realistic precautions for one organisation might be unacceptable for a larger or different type of business. In this respect guidelines on periodic safety testing intervals are provided in the IEE Code of Practice and supported by various HSE guidelines.

Given this situation, companies engaged in cost efficiency introductions need to think very clearly about the potential consequences.

In considering any cost reductions a clear distinction needs to be made between, for example, what might be regarded as potentially unnecessary and costly advice against those potentially vital life (or business) saving procedures.

This particularly applies to in-service electrical safety testing and ever more at a time when companies may be tempted to delay the replacement of older or damaged equipment with new tools and appliances, which so often happens during difficult economic conditions.

Where electrical safety is concerned, there is absolutely no room whatsoever for taking risks or adopting dangerous cost cutting practices.

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