Electrical testing can often be overlooked when it comes to reducing the risk of fire in the workplace, as Seaward’s Jim Wallace explains

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently launched revised guidance on maintaining electrical portable appliances in low risk environments, where it advises against testing too often, explaining that, for some businesses, there may be little need to test all their equipment every year – but testing at various intervals is still advisable, depending on the type of equipment. 

The latest HSE announcement makes an important contribution to maintaining electrical safety in the workplace, but it should also continue to be viewed alongside all the other advice, guidance and pertinent information available on this matter.

Consequences of electrical faults

Evidence suggests that faulty electrical appliances pose a real threat to people and property. Indeed, the HSE receive reports of 1,000 workplace accidents and 30 fatalities involving electric shock and burns each year.

However, as well as personal injuries, fires started by poor electrical installations and faulty electrical appliances are also a major cause of additional deaths, injuries and considerable damage to businesses and properties in all working environments.

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 buildings i.e. non-dwellings (see chart right) – and these statistics are compelling.

For example, in 2010/11, faulty appliances and leads were the cause of 4,400 accidental fires (25%) in non-residential buildings.

According to statistics collated by the Fire Protection Association (FPA)5, between 2000 and 2005, in 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 evidence demonstrating the dangers and hazards associated with the use of unsafe electrical appliances featured strongly at last year’s Electrical Safety Council’s Product Safety Conference, where a number of organisations reported on their own experiences. For example, statistics from Essex Fire and Rescue showed that from 2006-2008, there were 438 primary fires as a result of faulty electrical appliances, causing 75 casualties.

In addition, an appliance testing programme carried out by the trading standards office of Suffolk County Council revealed that 26% of electrical items tested were non-compliant and 45% were unsafe.

Eliminating the risks

From analysis of these statistics it’s clear that in-service inspection and testing of electrical equipment therefore has a considerable role to play in helping to prevent the exposure of workers and premises to the increased risk of personal injury and fire posed by unsafe appliances.

A duty holder can demonstrate compliance with the EAWR by a variety of means, of which inspection and testing is one, and it is up to the duty holder to determine how this can best be achieved in relation to the risk posed in their own particular environment.

A visual inspection by a competent person is likely to eliminate hazards caused by cable or plug damage, faulty wiring or other obvious signs that the equipment’s condition could create faults or a danger to users.

However, to identify all potentially dangerous faults, visual inspection needs to be linked with a programme of periodic inspection and testing that is capable of revealing any ‘invisible’ electrical faults such as earth continuity, insulation integrity, correct polarity, excessive protective conductor current and other potential problems.

To clarify the issue of in-service periodic inspection and testing of electrical appliances, both the Health and Safety Executive and the IET produce guidance documents.

The HSE has recently updated its guidance for low risk environments and more detailed advice will be included in a revised and updated IET Code of Practice for In-Service Inspection and Testing of Electrical Equipment.

Using a process of risk assessment, a dutyholder is able to refer to these guidance documents to determine whether inspection and testing is appropriate and, if so, how often this should be taken.

There is indisputable evidence that periodic in-service inspection and testing of portable electrical equipment has made a significant contribution to improving workplace safety. 

There is a great deal of recorded evidence that illustrates that electrical inspection and testing has identified many situations where defective equipment could have caused electrocution or fire.

It follows that the process of electrical inspection and testing has made a significant contribution to improving and maintaining safety in the workplace, and all moves to encourage a better and more widespread understanding of this vitally important issue should be welcomed.



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