Last reviewed 22 February 2017

Portable electrical equipment faults can result in persons receiving shocks or burns or they can cause property damage and life risks through fire or explosion. Mike Sopp explores the necessity of a carefully thought out regime of inspection, testing and repair.

The need for maintenance

Under health and safety legislation, there is no definition of portable electrical equipment but the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggests it includes “equipment that is intended to be connected to a generator or a fixed installation by means of a flexible cable and either a plug and socket or a spur box, or similar means”.

This includes equipment that is handheld or hand-operated as well as “extension leads, plugs and sockets, and cord sets that supply portable equipment”.

Any voltage above 55V AC can be potentially fatal. Electric shock can cause severe injury including muscular spasms and deep-seated tissue burns, as well as death. 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.

In addition to the health and safety risks, poor maintenance of portable electrical equipment can result in:

  • deterioration in the performance of the equipment, including its safeguards

  • loss of productivity due to the equipment being unavailable

  • increased costs due to frequent equipment repair and replacement.

Therefore, adequate and appropriate maintenance and upkeep of electrical equipment is critical to the proper management of these physical assets.

Maintenance influences

There are a number of pieces of legislation that require portable electrical equipment to be maintained. In particular, the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 require that electrical systems and equipment “must be maintained, so far as reasonably practicable, to prevent danger”.

The regulations themselves are not prescriptive but rather are “goal-setting” and to ensure that a premises meets this general requirement, it is normally good practice to follow the appropriate guidance that is available, for example, HSE guidance publication HSG107 Maintaining Portable Electrical Equipment.

This publication suggests that a risk assessment will assist in controlling and managing risks by enabling the setting up of an appropriate maintenance plan. Factors to consider in the risk assessment are:

  • the type of equipment that will require maintenance

  • initial integrity of the equipment and accessibility of dangerous parts

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

  • the work environment of the equipment

  • the age of the equipment and operating processes

  • manufacturer’s guidelines and recommendations

  • previous history of maintenance.

The HSE guidance suggests that a particular issue with portable equipment to consider is whether or not it is handheld as this will “present a greater degree of risk because, if it does develop a dangerous fault, the person holding it will almost certainly receive an electric shock”.

The HSE also makes reference to other key areas to be considered, including the:

  • cable or flex that supplies the equipment as this is often subject to repeated flexing and potential mechanical damage

  • bringing of unauthorised equipment into the work environment that may not meet its requirements in terms of equipment.

Developing maintenance regimes

In order for a maintenance management programme in relation to portable electrical equipment to be effective, it must be planned in the same way as any other safety related activity.

In terms of electrical equipment, HSG107 Maintaining Portable Electrical Equipment suggests that effective maintenance of portable electrical equipment can be achieved by a combination of:

  • checks by the user

  • formal visual inspections by a competent person

  • a combined inspection and test (ie portable appliance test (PAT)).

The guidance states that the aim of these checks “is to determine whether the equipment is fully serviceable or whether remedial action is necessary to make sure it is safe to use”.

The undertaking of user checks prior to using equipment is often neglected as part of the overall maintenance regime but it is recommended that users are encouraged to undertake visual checks for obvious signs of damage or wear and tear.

Formal inspections can then be regularly completed that build on the user checks. The HSE suggests that this can be undertaken by a nominated employee who has sufficient knowledge and information to complete this task following written guidance.

For many organisations, the combined inspection and test will be required to identify faults such as the loss of earth integrity and insulation deterioration that may not be identified through user checks and formal inspections.

The nominated person/s undertaking this part of the regime (be they in-house or external) must be appropriately trained with the HSE giving the following definitions of competency.

  • Level 1: A person not skilled in electrical work routinely uses a simple “pass/fail” type of portable appliance tester where no interpretation of readings is necessary.

  • Level 2: A person with appropriate electrical skills uses a more sophisticated instrument that gives readings requiring interpretation.

Frequency of user checks, inspections and testing is according to the HSE “a matter of judgment by the dutyholder, and should be based on an assessment of risk” although suggested periods are provided in HSG107.

Having determined needs, the manager can then develop a maintenance schedule that details the equipment within the scope of the regime, type and frequency of checks, inspection and testing, the nominated persons responsible for this, etc. This will enable appropriate financial planning to be developed so that adequate resources are made available to meet the necessary legal requirements.

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.

Although there is no legal requirement to maintain a log, the HSE states that “a suitable log is useful as a management tool for monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of the maintenance plan”. It should record faults found along with where and how the equipment was being used thereby enabling trends to be identified as part of an audit or review process of the maintenance regime.

It is quite common practice to label portable electrical equipment once it has been subject to inspection or testing. The HSE states that the label should indicate that the equipment has been tested satisfactorily and when it was tested but that there should not be a next test due date on it “as this decision should be made by the dutyholder based on a risk assessment”.

Further information

The following are available from the HSE website:

  • HSG85 Electricity at Work: Safe Working Practices

  • HSG107 Maintaining Portable Electrical Equipment

  • HSR25 Memorandum of Guidance on the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989. Guidance on Regulations