Electrical Safety for Home Working
During the current Covid-19 crisis there has been a massive increase in home working. We have all seen on social media pictures of rapidly cobbled together home office spaces, often now shared with other family members too. Many such working arrangements were setup at short notice and items were taken from our normal places of work or newly purchased for the task as a temporary measure. It is easy to forget during these challenging times that home working is still work and therefore subject to the same legal requirements, like the Electricity at work regulations 1989.
As we settle into the rhythm of home working, potentially for the long haul, it is important that we ensure the safety of ourselves and our families by taking a little time to make sure our new working arrangements are safe. Below are a few simple measures we can all adopt while working from home.
Firstly, your company is likely to have a policy relating to the safety of those working from home and it is likely that this document will include a risk assessment. It’s worth familiarising yourself with this as it will detail the safety measures in place and what you need to do to comply with them. It is possible however that this policy has not been updated to cope with the current arrangements and where you feel the documents are not up-to-date you should raise this with you company’s health and safety contact.
In the absence of more formal company guidelines you can perform your own simple risk assessment on your new working arrangements. The first activity in risk assessment is spotting and making a list of hazards, things that could cause harm. Often these are simple to spot like, trip hazards caused by cables run across walk-ways or cups placed where their contents could spill into equipment if knocked over. In this article I am focusing on electrical safety, but the risk assessment process works perfectly well for all hazards, it can also be a family activity getting everyone involved in identifying the new dangers and what can be done to mitigate them.
Once you have identified the hazards, then the next step is to establish the level of risk. Risk is made up of two judgements, how likely is it to happen and how serious could it be if it did happen. Often people assign a numeric score to each of these judgements, say from 1-10, you can then multiply the two numbers to get a risk score out of 100. The final step is then to decide what can be done to reduce/remove the risk where possible. You can never fully remove all risk, but we can do a lot by using simple control measures to reduce the risks associated with home working. For low risk items there may be no action required we will simply keep them under review. For medium and high-risk items however we need to put control measures in place to bring the risk down to acceptable levels. Obviously, the best option is always to see if we can remove the hazard altogether, by maybe doing the job in a different way which removes the need for the equipment in the first place. In most cases though we will need to define control measures, these are strategies that will affect either the chance something will go wrong or the severity. A typical example of a control measure used to mitigate the risk posed by damaged equipment might be to do a weekly ‘user check’ to identify any physical damage caused to equipment. A control measure used to reduce the risk of fire at night might be to make sure all work equipment is switched off when not in use. Eventually you can put measures in-place to address all of the hazards you identified and therefore reduce your overall risk.
Below are some common electrical hazards to get you started
Extension leads – Extension leads are ‘technically’ intended for temporary use only and should never be seen as a long-term replacement for having the right number of socket outlets installed in the fixed installation. We must be careful when using extension leads that they are suitable for the intended task and not overloaded, which can cause overheating and fires. The maximum rating of any extension lead for domestic use it 13A, but many are rated lower than this. Remember that when we use an extension lead with more than one outlet we are not increasing the total amount of current available, we are dividing it up across the number of outlets we have. So, if we have a 10A rated extension lead with two sockets and we know we have a 3A PC monitor connected to one socket, that means we only have a maximum of 7A left for the remaining socket. Most of the items we will be using for home working will be pretty low power, but we should aim to spread these loads out and we must never exceed the rating of the lead. Most leads will be marked with their maximum rating and equipment should also be marked with the amount of current or power it consumes giving us a good idea of what is safe to connect and what would be best kept on its own socket. Extension reels are a particular danger because they can overheat if they are used when still coiled up. Coiled leads cannot dissipate heat at the same rate as un-coiled leads and so reels will usually be marked with two ratings, the coiled rating and the higher un-coiled rating. It is always best practice to fully un-coil extension reels to allow them to keep as cool as possible, also avoid running leads in locations like under carpets where overheating can take place and damage is also not evident. Avoid practices like ‘daisy chaining’, plugging one extension lead into another, this can lead to overloading and is see as very bad practice. The use of ‘block’ style multi-way connectors should also be avoided and in the past these devices have led to fires if overloaded, be especially careful to identify noncompliant, unfused, connectors which are very dangerous and should never be used.
Overloaded Multiway Adapter
What control measures can we use for extension leads?
Think about the leads you need and chose the right leads for the job, check that they are correctly rated for the loads you need to connect to them and that reels are uncoiled. Visually inspect all leads throughout their length looking for any signs of damage to the cable, plug and outlets, before you connect it to the installation and on a regular basis to make sure the lead stays safe. Do not run the lead where it could create a trip hazard. Only use the minimum number of leads you need and avoid powering non-essential items from leads. You may need to buy more suitable leads and these two should be check prior to installation. Repositioning your work area near to fixed socket outlets might be a better long-term solution removing the need for leads and removing the risk entirely.
Damaged, Faulty or Substandard equipment – The rushed nature of setting up an impromptu home office during the current crisis can mean that we have quickly brought together a mixture of work equipment, items from home and things that we have bought in specially. It is important to verify as much as we can that all of these items are safe for use and don’t pose a danger. The best way to confirm the safety of this equipment would be to get all of this equipment fully inspected and tested by a professional PAT tester and if you have access to this service then that would always be my first choice. Remember however, even items with a current PAT test label were only confirmed as being safe at the time of test and in the location they were tested, now we have moved them they could have become damaged or there may be other factors about their new environment that need to be considered. It is for these reasons that we should conduct a thorough ‘User Check’ on all equipment; this is usually done before first use and periodically, say weekly, to ensure on-going safety. A user check does not replace formal PAT testing but will go a long way to identifying the most common faults and help us to control the risk posed by such equipment while home working during the current crisis. User checks should be performed before connecting the equipment to the electricity supply and if any equipment fails a user check it should not be used. Never try to repair equipment yourself, as this could lead to danger and instead it is preferred to replace faulty items.
To perform a user check, first ensure that the item to be tested is not connected to the electricity supply, then perform a full visual inspection starting with the 3-pin mains plug, does the plug look intact? Are there any signs of damage like bent pins, cracks or burning? Is the cable fitted to the plug correctly? You should be able to pull and twist the cable without movement inside the plug. The outer sheath of the cable should go all the way into the plug and none of the coloured cores should be visible. Once you are happy with the plug, move up the cable looking for any signs of damage, especially where any of the internal cores have become exposed. The cable should enter the equipment neatly and be firmly held, again the outer sheath of the cable should enter the equipment and no cores should be exposed. Now check the case of the equipment. Are there any signs of damage, like cracks or any signs of corrosion or the presence of water? Can the equipment be used safely? Does it have the correct stand to stop it falling over? Have guards or parts of the enclosure been removed? The visual inspection is a common sense check of the plug, the equipment and it’s lead. You are looking for anything that seems out of the ordinary and especially items that you think may indicate damage has occurred. Always default on the side of safety, don’t be afraid to ask for advice if you are unsure and never use an item of equipment you feel may be dangerous.
Extension lead with poor connection causing overheating.
This is a typical example of an item that can be picked up with a simple user check
Once you have exhausted the visual inspection part of the user check and no faults have been found, you can now continue to perform a functional check. This is carried out by connecting the piece of equipment to a supply and testing to see if it functions correctly. Check that the plug is a good fit in the socket and it can be inserted and removed normally without undue force. Turn on the equipment and test it to make sure it is working as you would expect. Does the mains switch work OK? Are there any strange noises or smells coming from the equipment? Does it get hot when it shouldn’t or cut out for no reason? You should test the equipment for enough time to fully check all of its functions and confirm that you are happy it can be used safely. Equipment that passes the visual and functional checks can now be used, but remember to monitor the equipment for any changes in condition and you should schedule further re-check are regular intervals during the period you are working from home. User checks are one of the most effective control measures we can employ to reduce the risks of using electrical equipment at work.
An additional area of concern, especially relation to newly purchased equipment is the hazard posed by substandard or counterfeit equipment. These are two distinctly different categories of equipment but can be addressed as one. Substandard equipment is equipment that fails to meet the necessary product safety standards. This could be intentional, where a manufacturer has cut corners to make products cheaper or unintentional ie. a manufacturing fault that the manufacturer is unaware of. Counterfeit equipment is intentionally designed to mislead the buyer, passing itself off as a more reputable item. Although not always the case, the vast majority of counterfeit products are also substandard and may have little in the way of safety precautions built in. It is always
tempting to buy a bargain and when a cheap charger looks the same on the outside as the more expensive ‘genuine’ item what could be the harm? Sadly, this is often the view of many people, but counterfeit and substandard products pose a significant hazard to our workplaces and homes. There are numerous records of incidents involving this type of equipment leading to damage, electric shocks and fires. Smart device chargers and laptop power supplies are two types of product which are often counterfeited. It is best practice to use only chargers and power supplies certified by the manufacture or from known approved suppliers who can guarantee the safety of their products. If you are buying equipment for your new home office please think very carefully about the safety of the items you are buying, introducing potentially dangerous items into your home could have consequences that are too terrible to think about.
Faulty USB phone Charger
Other items to consider – In addition to the items mentioned above it is worth discussing the overall safety of your electrical installation, we can take all of the precautions to ensure the safety of the equipment you use, but if the fixed installation isn’t up to scratch then we can still be at risk. You should always visually inspect any socket outlets before connecting equipment. Look for signs of damage or burning and make sure the switch works correctly. Your installation may also be protected by an RCD (Residual Current Device), this is a very sensitive safety switch that will turn off the power if it senses a faulty. RCD’s are usually located at your fuse board and can be tested by pushing the ‘T’ or test button, this should be tested every three months to ensure it is fully working and will operate if there is a fault. If you are unsure it is best to consults a qualified electrician who will be able to demonstrate the test procedure. It is also important to test your smoke alarms regularly as the main hazard posed by electrical equipment is fire and not electrocution as most people suspect. With this in mind, it is recommended that when not in use you turn off any electrical equipment as this removes any danger at the source.
During the Covid-19 pandemic it is not surprising that electrical safety is not exactly number one on most people’s list of safety concerns, but hopefully you can see that taking a few small precautions can help to protect our home and families and also aid our employers in meeting their legal responsibilities under the electricity at work regulations.
At Seaward our electrical safety testing products and services have been keeping people safe for almost 40 years. If you would like further information please connect with Seaward via our website seaward.com or through our social media channels.
Special thanks to Julie at Bristol PAT Testing Ltd who provided some of the images used in this article.