Electrical safety in the workplace is governed by the Electricity at Work (EAW) Regulations 1989. They require that electrical systems, which includes portable electrical equipment, shall at all times be constructed and maintained “so far as reasonably practical, to prevent danger.”
The regulations are goal-setting, describing the safety objectives to be achieved. They do not prescribe precautions to be taken, responsibility for which lies with the duty holder based on a risk assessment.
The term “portable electrical equipment” applies to all portable or movable appliances that are connected to the fixed mains supply, or to a locally generated supply, generally by a lead and a plug. Typically these will include portable heaters, vacuum cleaners, desktop computers, kettles and other kitchen equipment, irons, desk lamps, electric drills, extension leads and larger items such as vending machines, cookers and photocopiers. Major items such as electric vehicles, cranes and generators are beyond the scope of this Risk Bulletin.
Risk assessment and control
Accidents involving portable electrical equipment are largely caused by lack of correct maintenance. The likelihood of accidents occurring, and their severity, will vary considerably depending on the type of equipment, what it is used for and where it used.
It is a myth that every portable electrical appliance in the workplace has to be tested annually. On the contrary, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has always advocated a “proportionate risk-based” approach to maintenance. For portable electrical equipment this may involve visual user checks, formal visual inspection and combined inspection and testing.
Visual user checks
Having received appropriate instruction, employees should be able to carry out visual checks of equipment before it is used and whilst disconnected, looking for defects such as:
•Damage to the lead or plug
•Poorly jointed/taped lead
•Exposed inner cable where joined to the plug or equipment
•Damage to the outer cover of the equipment
•Signs of overheating, such as burn marks or staining on the plug, lead or equipment
Formal visual inspection
The HSE says formal visual inspections of all portable equipment should be carried out by a trained person at periodic intervals. For offices, shops and other low-risk environments these intervals should be between six months and four years, depending on the type of equipment. For other environments, intervals of between one week and two years are generally recommended, depending on the severity of the risk. In addition to user checks, formal visual inspection should include:
•Removal of the plug cover, checking that the correct fuse is fitted, that the cable terminations are correct and secure, the cord grip is correctly in place and there are no signs of internal damage, overheating or ingress of liquid or foreign matter
•Ensuring the equipment is used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions and remains fit for purpose