It often takes an accident to make people step back and look critically at what they actually do. Here, Andrew Pitt of the Health & Safety Executive, offers advice on formulating your organisation's safety strategy.
16 June 2014
Electrical systems are a necessary part of the modern world, but too often the risks associated with work on, or near such systems are considered only for the electrical trades.
Almost all trades associated with facilities management are likely to be exposed to electrical risk. For some, an element of electrical work will be part of their everyday activities and yet they may never have received any formal training in electrical safety.
Most people are aware of the risks from electricity but do not appreciate the danger. Even the slightest contact with mains voltage can be fatal.
The most recent safety statistics published by the HSE for the UK are positive, identifying a reduction in the number of workplace fatalities. But the injury rates for skilled trade occupations are statistically higher than for the average employee. Many people will have received an electric shock at some time in their lives and chances are they will not have suffered any lasting effects.
Do you adequately manage the electrical safety of your employees? The risks from electricity are foreseeable in the workplace, but if the risks are not managed properly there is a real risk of people being killed.
In most organisations, managers and supervisors will answer the above question with a definite "Yes". Yes, we have electrical safety policies and procedures, yes, we only employ competent people and appoint contractors who know what they are doing and, yes, safety is at the heart of our activities. And although this is both positive and welcome and genuinely felt, taking the time to think more critically about this question is likely benefit everyone.
Health and Safety Executive inspectors will investigate more serious incidents in a year than most managers or supervisors will encounter in their entire working careers.
Having all the procedures and policies in place is necessary but they must also be followed.
Unfortunately, electrical accidents do happen in organisations that have robust policies and procedures and employ only competent people as well as those that don't.
Often simple precautionary measures including adherence to good working practices and the reinforcement of those measures in the work place, coupled with the ability to identify electrical risk would have made a significant difference to the outcome.
Having policies, procedures and systems to assess competence for electrical safety is a good place to start. Putting the intent of these high-level requirements into practice effectively is what can make the difference. Being able to recognise electrical risk and put in place measures to mitigate those risks is key.
Managers and supervisors must think carefully about what is really meant by competence. You should not assume that your always trusted "go-to person" is necessarily the right one for the job. Even the most experienced people can be out of their depth if sent to the wrong place or are provided with the wrong information.
Consider who is best (not just available) for a particular task, but think also about the planning, information, supervision, instruction and support that is needed to create a safe working environment before work starts.
Most importantly, re-enforce and check the workplace to ensure that these things are being done well and without exception.
The built environment and working practices have changed significantly since the Health and Safety at Work Act came into being some 40 years ago. The basic principles for safe working for all trades exposed to electrical systems have not changed significantly since electrical installations were first installed in buildings.
- Identify the presence of electrical hazards and understand how the dangers may be realised by the work activities planned.
- Isolate electrical equipment or services whenever it is practical to do so;
- Never touch any exposed conductors or connectors or reach inside equipment without first testing it is dead;
- Never expose live parts unsafely during work activities including testing; and
- Always follow safe systems of work, regardless of pressure of work or time constraints.
The IET recently published a code of practice for Electrical Safety Management. This provides simple self-assessment tools and guidance to facilitate a systematic assessment of the processes in place for the management of electrical safety. Even organisations that are confident that they have robust systems may find the results of an honest assessment interesting reading.
The message that health and safety is everyone's responsibility may be very familiar within facilities management. It is, after all, enshrined in the Health and Safety at Work Act, which is itself 40 years old this year. At the heart of health and safety is a system that ensures that policies are translated into procedures that can be implemented by people who are competent, work in a controlled environment and are able to undertake work safely.
For further information see HSE publications GS38, HSG85 or visit the HSE website at http://www.hse.gov.uk/electricity/index.htm
Andrew Pitt, HM Specialist Inspector for the Health and Safety Executive