Last reviewed 15 February 2021

Mike Sopp looks at best practice when working with electrical systems.

All premises will be dependent on the use of electricity for everyday work activities to some degree. However, electrical system or equipment faults can result in people receiving shocks or burns, or cause property damage and risks to life through fire or explosion.

More often than not, such faults and hazards will occur through a lack of appreciation of the dangers associated with electricity, and a lack of suitable management systems to control the safe purchase, use and maintenance of electrical equipment and associated systems.

It is important that those with responsibility for the management of a premises appreciate the hazards associated with electricity at work, and that a suitable management system is developed and implemented to manage the risks.

Electrical hazards

Every year, many accidents at work involving electric shock or burns are reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Within the workplace, electricity can create a number of hazards such as:

  • contact with live parts causing shock and burns

  • faults that could cause fire

  • fire and explosion in a potentially flammable or explosive atmosphere.

Any voltage above 55 volt alternating current (AC) can be potentially fatal. As well as death, electric shock can cause severe injury, including muscular spasms and deep-seated tissue burns.

Electrical fires and explosions can be caused as a result of:

  • leakage of current due to poor insulation

  • faulty or poorly maintained protective devices

  • overloads of electrical circuits causing overheating

  • ignition of flammable substances in the working environment.

According to the HSE, most accidents involving electricity occur because:

  • people believe that the equipment is dead when it is actually still live

  • those working on live systems or equipment, do not have the appropriate safety equipment and training.

Apart from the direct risks, faults in electrical systems or equipment can have associated injuries, eg receiving a shock while working on an electrical system at height may lead to the individual falling.

Many factors have to be considered that may affect the level of risk posed by electrical systems and equipment, including

  • the age of the equipment

  • the suitability of the system or equipment

  • testing, examination and inspection regimes

  • the working environment

  • management systems, particularly in relation to working on systems and equipment.

Although those using or working with electricity directly (eg maintenance engineers) are at greater risk, poor electrical installations and faulty electrical appliances may also cause harm to others.

Codes of Practice

The key piece of legislation is the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 (EWR 1989), which apply to all places where work is done on or near electricity. EWR 1989 requires all systems (including equipment) to be constructed so as to prevent danger. In addition, they require the following.

  • All systems to be maintained so as to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, danger.

  • Every work activity, including operation, use and maintenance of a system and work near a system to be carried out in a manner as not to give rise, so far as is reasonably practicable, to danger.

  • Persons carrying out work on electrical systems to be competent to do so.

To meet the requirements of EWR 1989, there are a number of key publications that provide considerable technical information from trade associations and the HSE.

As an example, the HSE has published HSG85 Electricity at Work. Safe Working Practices. This publication puts emphasis on the need to select and use the most appropriate electrical equipment.

It further details the need to undertake a risk assessment for any work activities and determine whether to work dead or live. It then provides guidance on the best working practice for both types of working.

HSG85 also notes the need for managers to establish “a system of rules and procedures wherever electrical work is to be carried out”.

Although clear guidance exists in relation to safe working, it may be the case that overall electrical safety matters may be the responsibility of non-electrical experts (such as facilities managers). This in itself could create risks.

To address this, the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) Code of Practice for Electrical Safety Management aims to “provide good practice guidance to enable individuals and their organisations to have a level of knowledge and understanding to manage the risks associated with an electrical system”.

The Code’s intended audience includes those responsible for ensuring there is an appropriate electrical safety policy and associated procedures, those responsible for ensuring that the procedures are implemented, those responsible for the management of specific electrical tasks, and those responsible for the safe condition of equipment and machinery.

However, the IET recognise that such responsibilities may not always be undertaken by those experienced in electrical installations and equipment, and this is reflected in the Code’s content.

The IET contend that there are many technical publications that provide guidance on certain aspects of electrical safety, but “not in a way that provides a process for managing electrical safety”. The IET states that the objectives of the Code are as follows.

  • To provide good practice practical guidance in the form of a self-assessment so that the user can follow a systematic approach to understanding the management of various aspects of an electrical system for their organisation.

  • For the guidance to be understood and usable by a broad range of individuals in technical and non-technical disciplines.

  • To enable the end user to create and implement an effective electrical safety management system where nothing is currently in place, or to enhance an existing system.

Management system

An effective electrical management system will reduce the risk of harm from electricity by ensuring that all key elements that give safety assurance are identified and addressed. The IET Code is broken down into four main sections that detail these elements as follows.

  1. Managing policy aspects, including setting of policy, leadership, planning and design factors.

  2. Managing procedure aspects, including the identification and control of risks, safe working practices, maintenance, documentation and performance monitoring.

  3. Managing people aspects, including appointments, training, competence and communication.

  4. Managing specific issues, including working on live systems, contractors, buried and overhead cables.

The first stage in any management system is to draw up an appropriate policy in relation to electrical safety. This will detail an overall statement in relation to the management of electrical safety, and the responsibility and arrangements required for such safe management. The exact details of this will very much depend on local issues, such as building and equipment ownership, use of contractors and so on.

A survey of electrical requirements, systems and equipment, and subsequent risk assessment, may assist in formulating the management system.

The survey may identify issues associated with the installation and equipment used, while the risk assessment will identify the hazards and control measures required. Typically, it will include factors such as:

  • suitability of systems and equipment, and its age

  • accessibility of dangerous parts

  • likely levels of use (and abuse) the system or equipment will receive

  • the work environment

  • type of equipment, for example Class 1 or Class 2

  • who will be using the system or equipment

  • level of information, training, instruction and supervision required by users

  • responsibility for maintenance and repair, including competency required.

Crucial to any electrical safety management system is the selection and/or installation of suitable systems and equipment. This will include purchasing items designed and installed to specific standards, reducing voltage where practical, and utilising residual current devices.

Another input to the system will be manufacturers’ guidance and handbooks. These will provide invaluable information and, if necessary, any information contained within them should be incorporated into the management system, for example in information and training provided to staff, and inspection and maintenance procedures.

Decisions on maintenance levels and the frequency of checks should be made in consultation with equipment manufacturers’ guidelines and outcomes of the risk assessment. Work on electrical systems is high-risk and competence of operatives undertaking planned preventative maintenance is paramount with any testing and maintenance being carried out under controlled conditions using safe systems of work.

Finally, an important element of any management system is a defect reporting process that allows staff using the equipment to report any defects, and appropriate action to be taken in terms of inspection or removal of defective equipment and its subsequent repair.

Further information