PAT on the back? What is a portable electrical appliance and does it need to be tested?

Alan Field outlines some of the key points to remember in achieving safer and more reliable equipment through Portable Appliance Testing (PAT).

Introduction

Electrical faults are still a significant cause of fire (over 50% of fires in England, if one includes domestic premises). There are over 1000 people electrocuted in the workplace per year in the UK and some of these electrocutions result in fatalities or life-changing injuries. Defective portable electrical appliances can lead to business delays and repair costs, so regularly reviewing electrical safety and, in particular, the regime of Portable Appliance Testing (PAT) is a good discipline for the facilities management professional to review.

It should be remembered that Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) state that it is an employer’s responsibility to ensure that work equipment is maintained and in good working order. It also requires that employer should regularly review their equipment to safeguard employees from electric shocks and reduce fire hazards in the workplace. The Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 (as amended) also require precautions to be taken against the risk of death or personal injury from electricity in work activities.

There is no specific legal requirement to undertake PAT. However, employers are required to ensure that electrical equipment is maintained to prevent danger to users. PAT is the accepted approach to all portable appliances and, indeed, is often specified as a contractual deliverable for a facilities management professional in terms of statutory compliance.

Before we consider the risk assessment process for electrical equipment, it is worth considering what is applicable to PAT.

The non-portable

While electrocution and fires can arise from faulty portable appliances, there are also accidents involving unplanned contacts with overhead wires or underground cables. These are not within the scope of this article, and neither are risks from high-voltage equipment and other fixed electrical kit. However, the importance of risk assessment and keeping operational controls under regular review applies to all electrical installations.

What is a portable appliance?

The HSE literature says this simply means any appliance (including extension leads, multi-way adaptors and connection leads) that can be moved and be connected or disconnected from an electrical supply. Portable or movable items generally have a lead (cable) and a plug.

Portable and movable equipment includes the following.

  • Electrical equipment that can be moved around, such as desk lamps, PC projectors, vacuum cleaners, portable heaters and fans, as well as workplace kitchen equipment such as kettles and toasters.

  • Larger items that could be moved (but only rarely), eg fridges, microwaves, water chillers or boilers, printers, vending machines, desktop computers and many servers, gateways and routers.

  • Any battery-charging equipment that is plugged into the mains (but, not usually, the laptop, mobile phone or any other hand-held device itself, if these are battery-operated).

  • Specialist advice should be taken where it is unclear if an appliance is a fixed installation or not, ie size does not necessarily matter in this context; neither does the fact that the appliance is connected directly into a fused spur box, ie without a plug. In broad terms, PAT could still apply if the appliance could be quickly moved to another location by a competent person, ie by isolating the supply and removing the appliance’s cables from the spur box itself. Where there is any doubt, a PAT regime could still be applied.

The risk assessment

Statutory compliances in facilities management can be influenced by the history of the premises concerned. For example, with older office buildings the original mechanical & electrical (M&E) design would not have taken into account the amount of technology used in buildings today, eg computers, servers and routers, mobile devices that need charging and audio-visual devices of all sorts. Also, a building’s occupancy may have changed, ie sole tenancy to multiple occupancy.

In other words, the first part of risk assessment for electrical installations is to look at the M&E history of the building and what upgrades to the electrical system have been done. This can even apply to when substantial refurbishment to a building has been undertaken with a design team. In other words, never assume something has been done correctly in the past just because no apparent fault is manifesting itself.

Of course, PAT is chiefly about the safety of individual appliances taking power from the mains — nevertheless the bigger picture is important, particularly for electrical wiring and any interfaces impacting on portable equipment, eg inadequate power loadings can be significant to fire risks, just as inadequate earthing can lead to be personal safety risks in some circumstances.

The risk assessment of an appliance should consider matters such as the frequency of use, whether it is used in a harsh environment or whether it is double insulated, ie there is a higher degree of user protection from electrocution. There may be other factors, eg build quality of the appliance, cable length and ruggedness of these peripherals.

Once this risk assessment is done, an inspection or testing regime can be decided upon.

In terms of individual appliances subject to PAT, there would normally be a three-stage inspection.

  • The first stage would be a user check, ie an operator’s pre-use checks for loose cables, etc, where the appliance is truly portable (of course, this can’t be fully done where inaccessible or concealed spur boxes are used, for example).

  • The second stage is visual inspection, at appropriate intervals, to check both the plug internally and any other connections. This needs to be undertaken by a competent person but not necessarily a fully qualified one.

  • Finally, some pieces of equipment may require a combined inspection and test by a person qualified to undertake such an examination and who is able to interpret the result — this is PAT.

Where an appliance is leased or under some other maintenance contract, PAT may be arranged by that party, although, arguably, this doesn’t negate the employer’s duty to undertake a visual inspection, ie to advise the owner/contractor if a repair is required outside routine servicing visits.

The frequency of testing is an area of differing opinion and, again, with no specific legal obligation. It might be dictated by the frequency of use and environment of the appliance in question; some organisations may have a blanket policy of annual PAT (or some other time standard frequency). Where there is any doubt, the advice of a qualified electrician should be sought. Also, for some appliances, the manufacturer’s instructions should be consulted about ongoing maintenance and inspection regimes.

In some cases, a simple user check and visual inspection is enough, such as checking for loose cables or other signs of damage like discolouration of the plug. This may not require a qualified electrician and can be used as a way to encourage user awareness of the potential dangers of all mains electricity.

Conclusion

  • Electricity is a significant cause of fires and accidental injury in the workplace.

  • There is no legal obligation to conduct Portable Appliance Testing (PAT).

  • Neither is there any legal requirement as to the frequency of PAT — this should be decided after risk assessment and possibly after specialist electrical advice.

  • PAT is not an end in itself. It should be undertaken after the risk assessment of the whole electrical provision within a building or demise.

  • PAT is used by the vast majority of stakeholders as a control to monitor the safety of portable appliances that use cables and plugs.

  • The distinction between a portable and fixed electrical appliance is not always straightforward; manufacturers or other specialist advice may need to be taken in some individual cases.

  • An electrician may not need to carry out a full PAT programme — some appliances may only need user checks and other straightforward inspections of cables and plugs.