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Full Test for Safety

11 January 2008

When does 100 per cent equal 10 per cent or less? According to Mark Blanchfield, 10 per cent is the level of actual testing being supplied by some companies in the electrical safety market, not 100 per cent as occupiers should expect.

SPECIAL DEALS FOR PAT (PORTABLE APPLIANCE TESTING) and fixed installation testing are prolific in the facilities market and many suppliers capitalise on the confusion caused when customers try to translate the less than specific legislation on electrical safety into the testing required for their site. The latest concern is that the lack of specific standards in the industry has allowed some suppliers to vary their service offering. At first glance this seems reasonable, but this has created a significant safety gap that is not immediately obvious and opens the potential for FMs to buy a level of testing that could be seriously inadequate.

Some unscrupulous electrical contractors are selling a 100 per cent test and inspection deal but when the small print is examined on their paperwork it transpires that this merely includes up to 10 per cent insulation resistance testing. In fact, ‘100 per cent’ only relates to visual inspection not actual electrical test.

The impact that testing less than 100 per cent circuits could have is dramatic. This isn’t a marketing survey whereby a ‘representative sample’ can be considered to indicate the view or status of the whole target population. Circuits that run from the same board can be in very different conditions due to degradation over time or inflicted damage. It is entirely possible to find neighbouring circuits where one passes the safety standards and one doesn’t. Given that the cables are hidden within the fabric of the building and visual inspection alone cannot verify their condition, it is critical to make every effort to test every circuit to identify any wiring that may be unsafe.

Insulation resistance is one of the most important of all electrical tests. In the fixed electrical wiring of a building it is impossible to determine whether a circuit is completely insulated from end to end without electrical testing. Inside that insulation runs live copper wire, and if this becomes exposed it presents a real and serious risk, not only in terms of electrocution to anyone coming into contact, but also in the creation of fire.

Each year about 1,000 accidents at work are reported involving electric shock or burns and around 30 of those are fatal, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). We constantly hear horror stories and see dangerous situations in the workplace. The most shocking of these included a public building for hundreds of residents that didn’t have an earth connected for the entire site. The potential risk for electric shock to all of those using and living in the building was considerable and could have been caused by something as simple as touching parts of appliances or devices plugged in anywhere within the building. This was not visible to the naked eye and so professional electrical testing was essential to expose the

If you calculate the impact of 10 per cent insulation resistance testing it is clear that if a system is in place whereby a different 10 per cent get systematically tested each year then checking the safety of the whole site will take a ‘mere’ decade. If suppliers are changed during that time or, as is likely, the supplier tests the same 10 per cent each year, then up to 90 per cent of the site could go untested year after year.

How do these contractors select the 10 per cent (or less) circuits they electrically test? It’s only speculation, but it’s entirely possible that they pick the easiest, nearest, shortest routes. It’s quite possible that the longer or most complex circuits are the most likely to be ignored. Indeed in some cases it is unclear exactly what has been tested.

The danger is that FMs don’t realise that 100 per cent inspection will mean anything other than 100 per cent testing and therefore wrongly assume that this is what they are buying; or (2) a client that relies on the expert guidance of their testing supplier, could be misguided into believing that the 10 per cent test rate is an adequate and acceptable safe standard. Either way the customer is not receiving an appropriate service. In the competitive testing market buyers are at risk of being blinded by low price without taking in account the sub-standard testing that this price results from. For buyers without electrical knowledge or training the difference in these service offerings is easy to miss but it has important implications for safety standards.

Epsilon has written to the chief executive of the NICEIC (the electrical contracting industry’s independent voluntary body for electrical installation matters throughout the UK) and asked that industry standards be set for periodic testing to offer clarity to the market and to stamp out this kind of unethical practice. The company recommends that the standard is set at 100 per cent testing of every circuit because this is comprehensive and safe. If a contractor chooses to sell a service at a reduced level then Epsilon argue they should at least be required to make their offer explicit so that buyers can make informed decisions.

With the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Killing Bill due to become law in April 2008, there has never been such an important time for organisations to have robust and reliable safety arrangements. Electrical safety is a key part of that overall Duty of Care and so it is the responsibility of the electrical contractor to offer reliable professional guidance and services in order to protect people and premises.

In cut price deals, the price may be lower but so too is the number of tests being performed. When compared with comprehensive testing, it’s surprising to see that the ‘deal’ works out to a higher charge per test for an inferior service. One thing that isn’t currently clear is the scale of this problem. There has been no measure to check how many firms cut corners like this. What has been established – and perhaps surprisingly so – is that even the larger contractors appear to have adopted this questionable practice.

It could also be argued that in a heavily supplied market where prices are being driven down contractors are likely to look for ways to reduce costs. Some, like Epsilon, invest in technology and the infrastructure to make them efficient and productive. Others, it appears, chose instead to cut corners on service to save money.

In the meantime, when you are next evaluating tender returns, price submissions or quotations for electrical safety testing, take extra care to ensure that 100 per cent of your site is being thoroughly tested. Examine the terms and conditions of the quotation or contract and agree any limitations in advance. Explicitly order 100 per cent insulation resistance testing and chose your supplier carefully – you are putting a great deal of trust in their hands.

When to test?
The Electricity at Work Regulations states: 'As may be necessary to prevent danger, all systems shall be maintained so as to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, such danger'. Interpreting this is what causes many organisations to struggle as nothing specific is written that gives you direct instruction on what exactly you must do regarding frequency of test. The IEE offer their ‘Code of Practice for In-Service Inspection and Testing of Electrical Equipment’ and the HSE also offer a guidance leaflet - both suggest recommended minimum frequencies. The responsibility remains with the company who should conduct a risk assessment to identify the potential risk and from that decide on a suitable frequency of testing. This should be based on the nature of the environment and the risk posed by individual appliances.

Should an incident occur, it would ultimately be the HSE that you would need to prove your Duty of Care to and they would look for proof of risk assessments and regimes of testing in place based upon the results of those assessments.

As a general guide to fixed installation testing, commercial sites usually undergo testing every five years, industrial premises every three years and public sites (for example cinemas, public houses) or those with specific health and safety factors (such as petrol stations), tested annually. There is no absolute, definitive frequency of test for electrical appliances. For example, a high risk item such as a kettle that is in continuous daily use by many different people should undergo more frequent testing than a low risk appliance such as a VDU that isn't moved or turned on/off other than by computer control. Stationary equipment in a hotel could be tested every four years but the same equipment in a school or public building should be tested annually. Seek professional guidance from a qualified electrician, electrical contractor or electrical testing specialist. A practical safeguard for gaining unbiased advice is to use separate suppliers for testing and any remedial work – that way the testing cannot be influenced by the lure of winning repair

When you choose an expert to undertake testing make sure they are members of both, the NICEIC and ECA and all their engineers are fully qualified to City and Guilds 2377 for portable appliance testing and 2391 for fixed installation. Their testing methods should comply with the IEE Codes of Practice and current Wiring Regulations to BS7671-2001 as amended and IEE guidance note 3. Your supplier should have public liability insurance of at least £5m. To comply with your CSR policy, select a supplier that can report digitally and expect those reports within a week following testing to enable faults to be expediently addressed.

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● Mark Blanchfield is managing director of Epsilon Test Services

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