The impact of the Electricity At Work Regulations 1989 on electrical safety and the prevention of fire risks is undeniable, but with more than 16,000 accidental fires in non-residential properties in 2012, there is still a long way to go.
This year is it a quarter of a century since the Electricity At Work Regulations (EAWR) 1989 entered the statute books. Introduced to raise the standards of electrical safety in UK workplaces, the regulations have become firmly acknowledged as the starting point for what is now known as portable appliance testing (PAT).
Although nowhere in the regulations is there a specific requirement for the testing of electrical equipment, there is an onus on the dutyholder to ensure that equipment in the workplace is maintained so as to prevent danger. It is this requirement that has introduced the implied need for periodic inspection and testing; without such actions, the inference is that the dutyholder will be unable to establish the potential dangers exposed by faulty or unsafe equipment.
As a result, in the event of electrical accidents, property damage or personal injury occurring, formal inspection and testing demonstrates a responsible and diligent approach towards safety that may subsequently be required by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), local authorities, insurance companies and other interested parties.
Despite the uncertainty that initially greeted the introduction of the regulations, the 25 year life of the EAWR 1989 has prompted a preventative approach that is now making a significant contribution to a safer working environment.
The consequences of electrical faults
In terms of preventing danger, there is indisputable evidence that the periodic in-service testing of electrical equipment prevents injuries and saves lives.
For example, although relevant HSE figures over the 25 year lifetime of the EAWR 1989 are not available, RIDDOR figures from 2001/02 to 2012/13 show that the total number of electricity-related fatalities, major injuries and over-three day injuries has fallen from 549 incidents to less than 300.
However, potential electrocution and electric shock represents only part of the problem associated with faulty electrical items. Proper consideration also needs to be made of the contributory role of faulty electrical appliances in commercial and industrial property fires, which are also a major cause of deaths, injuries and considerable costs to businesses.
In this respect it is often overlooked that formal electrical inspection and testing programmes also play an important role in avoiding workplace fires that would otherwise be devastating for those involved.
In particular, successive annual fire statistics show that faulty appliances and leads continue to pose the single most common problem as the main cause of accidental fires in ‘other dwellings’ – i.e. non residential properties. Over the 25 year period of the EAWR 1989, the following overall comparison can be made:
In the 1989 UK fire statistics, among 45,600 fires in ‘other occupied buildings’ (non domestic), 32,400 (71%) were regarded as accidental. Of these accidental fires, the main causes were faulty appliances and leads with 6,800 incidents (21%) and misuse of equipment or appliances with 6,400 fires (20%).
More recently, in the 2011/12 fire statistics Great Britain report, there were 24,100 fires in ‘other buildings’ of which 16,800 (70%) were regarded as accidental. The main cause of accidental fires in these buildings was faulty appliances and leads (24%). This represented around 4,000 fires during the year. The misuse of equipment and appliances was responsible for 2,600 accidental fires in 2011/12 (15%).
Over this 25-year period these figures would appear to show that the incidence of accidental electrical fires in commercial and industrial buildings has reduced significantly. Interestingly, the 24,100 fires recorded in ‘other buildings’ during 2011/12 was the lowest for more than a decade.
Between 2000/01 and 2011/12, faulty appliances and leads were identified as the cause of between 24% and 32% of accidental fires in non-dwelling type buildings.
In terms of the financial costs of these incidents, according to published statistics collated by the Fire Protection Association (FPA), between 2000 and 2005, in the 346 reported fires that were electrical in origin in business premises, the reported losses totalled over £178m, with an average loss per incident of over £51,000.
Other safety implications
Regular electrical appliance inspection and testing is also becoming one of the main ways in which dangerous counterfeit electrical equipment is identified. It is known that over 15m counterfeit products have been seized and destroyed in the period 2001 to 2013 – and the number is growing monthly.
Of course it is not only counterfeit electrical equipment that can pose a safety or fire risk. Genuine products from legitimate sources can sometimes be potentially unsafe and become the subject of product recall notices by manufacturers. In recent years, this potential problem has been exacerbated by failings in the product recall system. The safety charity Electrical Safety First has warned that millions of potentially dangerous recalled electrical products are thought to remain in use due to a worryingly low recall success rate.
A valuable contribution to safety
In these situations, by implementing regular and systematic inspection and testing of electrical appliances used in the workplace, portable appliance testing provides an effective safeguard against the risks posed by the continued use of potentially dangerous faulty equipment.
The EAWR 1989, along with the HSE memorandum of guidance and successive IET codes of practice, have consistently provided sound advice based on industry experience and the electrical safety needs of the business community. More recently the new emphasis on a common-sense approach to testing has also been useful in helping to generate a better understanding of portable appliance testing.
As we move forward, recent changes have proven that adequate electrical safety measures can be effectively maintained without the imposition of an overly excessive test regime.
Against the backdrop of 25 years of the Electricity At Work Regulations 1989, few could dispute that the process of electrical inspection and testing has made an important contribution to improving and maintaining safety in the workplace.
Jim Wallace is associate director products and technology at the Seaward Group
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