Combating the rise of electrical fire hazards
Technology gives us so much: it makes daily living less arduous, it gives us the means to carry out work more efficiently, and it keeps us connected to others all day, every day. All it requires in return is being plugged into an electrical outlet. With that requirement, however, comes great risks, and it’s our duty as users to minimise said risks.
The amount of fires that result from discarded cigarette butts or chip pans have seen a decline over the past few years, but, conversely, fires caused by electrical equipment have greatly increased. This is likely due to the fact that technology has become so ingrained in our daily lives that we think about how we use it about as much as we think about breathing.
This is particularly true in organisations that use a great deal of technology for workplace activities. We’ve forgotten that technology can be a ticking time bomb if we don’t take action to eliminate the risks they present and/or may develop over a long period of misuse or neglect at work.
Having an awareness of these risks, such as ensuring equipment has a British/European safety mark or not using unofficial chargers, enables users to utilise technology safely. Your organisation’s employees should be educated in the safe use of electrical equipment.
Likewise, having sufficient fire safety measures in place, such as appointing a trained fire warden and educating employees about the categories of fire signage, ensures that should something go wrong, people can still escape unscathed.
Just how common are electrical fires?
According to the Electrical Safety Council (ESC), fires from appliance misuse or ‘safety blunders’ have increased by over a third since 2009. The director general Phil Buckle stated that “People think they are behaving safely but the majority of people we surveyed had put themselves at risk by unknowingly making a safety blunder.”
The Fire Statistics from 2013/14 published by the Department for Communities and Local Government revealed that:
The main cause of fires in non-domestic buildings was faulty appliances and leads.
- This lead to roughly 2,700 fires.
Another primary cause was the misuse of equipment or appliances.
- This lead to roughly 2,000 fires.
The main source of ignition was electrical distribution.
- This accounted for nearly one fifth of accidental fires.
What are the most common ‘safety blunders?’
Commonly-reported safety blunders are mostly very obvious oversights on the user’s behalf. According to a study carried out by the ESC, this includes:
- Creating a fire hazard by using the top of a microwave as an additional surface and therefore blocking air vents (33%).
- Increasing the risk of serious fire spreading by leaving the tumble dryer running unattended or overnight (9%).
- Overloading adaptor sockets, which causes an unsafe rise in temperature (16%).
- Failing to clean behind the fridge/freezer, leading to air vents becoming blocked (44%).
- Leaving electrical appliances on unattended and only being alerted by a burning smell (9%).
Research also revealed that less than half of the people surveyed (49%) had a Residual Current Device in their fuse box (a safety device which cuts off the power if a fault is detected so to reduce the risk of a fire starting).
What should my organisation do?
You and your employees have a legal duty under the Electricity at Work Regulations (1989) to make sure you use electricity in the workplace appropriately and safely. You need to be aware of obvious fire risks that electrical equipment poses and understand what to do to minimise them.
Below are ways you can minimise electrical hazards in your workplace:
- When you acquire equipment, check that it has a British/European safety mark.
- Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using a device or piece of equipment.
- Buy electrical equipment from a reputable source.
- Always use official chargers and cables for devices and equipment.
- Don’t leave appliances charging unsupervised for a long time or for longer than specified by the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Don’t attempt to charge a battery that looks damaged.
- Don’t cover items up when charging as they emit heat. Keep them away from flammable materials.
- Don’t leave large appliances running overnight or when no one is in the building during the day (unless they’re designed to, e.g. a fridge).
- Don’t overload sockets. Remember that outlets, extension leads, and adaptors will have a limit to how many amps they can take.
- Ensure that those who work with electricity have sufficient skills and training.
- Ensure smoke alarms are fitted and checked regularly.
- Consider using a Residual Current Device (RCD) between electrical supplies and equipment, particularly where there is a high degree of risk (e.g. when working outdoor or in a wet or confined environment with electrical equipment).
- Keep an eye out for burn marks or stains around plug sockets which suggest overheating.
- Keep an eye out for frayed or worn cables and wires.
- Keep an eye out for flickering lights, blown fuses, or circuit-breakers that trip for no apparent reason.
- Always switch off equipment at the mains when it’s not in use and unplug where appropriate.
- Protect equipment that’s used in hazardous environments (e.g. extreme weather, temperatures, or corrosive conditions).
- Always replace damaged sections of cable completely – don’t simply repair them with insulating tape.
- Make sure equipment is fitted with the correctly-rated fuse.
- Use proper connectors to join cables – don’t use connector blocks wrapped in insulating tape or splice wires by twisting them together.
- Take faulty equipment out of use immediately. Label it appropriately so no one uses it and arrange to have it inspected by a competent person.
- Carry out a risk assessment at regular intervals and ensure employees carry out a pre-use check of equipment to check for any obvious faults.
Following these risk-prevention methods, and other electrical safety advice laid out by the Health and Safety Executive, will ensure that equipment is used safely and does not put your organisation at risk of a fire starting.
Liz Burton is a Content Author at High Speed Training: a UK-based online learning provider that offer training courses, including Electrical Safety, Fire Safety, and Fire Warden Training. Their blog, the Hub, contains a vast collection of health and safety-related topics, including those on electrical and fire safety in the workplace.