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August 15, 2014

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A PAT on the back – electricity at work

This year is a 25-year milestone for the Electricity At Work Regulations (EAWR) 1989. Introduced to raise the standards of electrical safety in the workplace, the regulations are generally acknowledged as the starting point for what is now known as portable appliance testing (PAT). 

Although there is not a specific requirement for the testing of electrical equipment in the regulation itself, there is an onus on the dutyholder to ensure that equipment in the workplace is maintained to prevent danger. Without inspection and testing the inference is that the dutyholder will be unable to establish any dangers from faulty or unsafe equipment.

In the event of electrical accidents, property damage or personal injury occurring, portable appliance testing can therefore demonstrate a responsible and diligent approach towards safety that may subsequently be required by HSE, insurance companies and other interested parties.

Alongside the EAWR 1989, HSE guidance notes and the IET code of practice for the in-service inspection and testing of electrical equipment provide supporting guidance. Both of these now emphasise the importance of a risk-based assessment of inspection and test intervals.

Although HSE is unable to provide detailed data on electricity-related fatalities, accidents and injuries going back 25 years, it seems clear that since the introduction of the EAWR 1989, the incidence or workplace accidents linked to electricity have shown a gradual decline.

For example, in figures extracted from RIDDOR from 2001/2002 to 2012/13(p), the total number of fatalities, major injuries and over three-day injuries has fallen from 549 incidents to less than 300.

However, potential 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 1989, 45,600 fires were recorded in the UK in ‘other occupied buildings (non domestic)’ of which 32,400 (71 per cent) were regarded as accidental.  Of these accidental fires, the main causes were faulty appliances and leads with 6,800 incidents (21 per cent).

Over the period of the EAWR 1989, Fire Statistics Great Britain reports that in 2011/12 there were 24,100 fires in ‘other buildings’ of which 16,800 (70 per cent) were regarded as accidental. The main cause of accidental fires in other buildings remains faulty appliances and leads (24 per cent). 

More recently, portable appliance inspection and testing is also becoming recognised as one of the main ways in which potentially unsafe counterfeit or faulty electrical equipment is successfully identified. 

The counterfeit kills website reports that over 15 million counterfeit products were seized and destroyed in the period 2001 to 2013 – and the number is growing monthly.

In addition, genuine products from legitimate sources can sometimes be potentially unsafe and become the subject of product recall notices by manufacturers.

In both these cases, evidence shows that the systematic inspection and testing of electrical appliances provides an effective means of identification and safeguard against the risks posed by the use of potentially dangerous equipment.

Against the backdrop of 25 years of the Electricity At Work Regulations 1989, few could dispute that the process of periodic electrical inspection and testing has made an important contribution to improving and maintaining safety in the workplace. 

Jim Wallace is associate director of the Seaward Group


The Seaward group has produced a white paper, the Preventative Role of Portable Appliance Testing – 25 years of the Electricity At Work Regulations 1989, which is available as a free download. 

SHP is considering a 25-year anniversary article around April 2015. We would be interested to hear from any safety and health professionals who could look at the practical issues around the implementation of the regulations. 

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