Health and Safety News

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Tips for improving electrical safety in the workplace

Photo shows a high voltage warning signElectricity is such an integral part of everyday life that it is easy to forget how dangerous it can be. At home or at work, we use lights, computers and other appliances without a second thought – only questioning their safety when something goes wrong.

In the UK, more than 1,000 electrical injuries are reported to the Health and Safety Executive every year, with around 25 of these leading to death. The likelihood is that a great number of minor accidents go unreported. The most common injuries are shocks and burns, and secondary injuries from falls and convulsions are also possible. Aside from injury and death, there is the risk of fire and damage to property. Fortunately, most electrical accidents are avoidable and can easily be prevented by following a few simple guidelines.

Before you start

Before working with power tools or other electrical equipment, visually check them for damage. Faults are often plainly visible – cracked housings, worn or loose wires, or discolouration where the equipment has overheated. Anything that is clearly damaged should be repaired or replaced before use. Extension cables are particularly vulnerable to damage, especially when they are old or have been used outside: the cold and damp can degrade even tough plastic sheathing over time, and most won’t be rated for outdoor use.

Electrical outlets should be well-maintained and installed to a correct industrial specification (such as BS 7671). Do not overload sockets by using multiple adaptors and extension cables – this is a common cause of electrical fires. For regular mains electricity, the total current of appliances plugged into a socket should not exceed 13 amps, or 3,000 watts.

RCDs (residual current devices) will sharply decrease the chances of a fatal accident. These are inexpensive units that plug into a socket between the appliance and the power supply. They detect voltage changes that indicate a fault – such as a cable being damaged and earthing – and immediately switch off the current. RCDs are not a substitute for good practice or proper training for workers, but form a valuable second line of defence. Voltage detectors should also be used to locate cables running behind walls or under floor boards when drilling and cutting.

High voltage cables

A large proportion of electrical accidents happen outside. Some of these occur when underground cables are damaged, or through contact with overhead power lines. These can carry many thousands of volts, and it is not even necessary to touch them for a fatal accident to happen – electricity can ‘flash’ across a gap. Accidents can be avoided by contacting the authorities to turn off the power if necessary, and by using voltage detectors and up-to-date service plans when working near underground cables.

Even working with lower voltages can be dangerous, though. Normal mains electricity can kill and cause serious injury. Working outdoors poses particular risks, since conditions are more likely to be wet and equipment more prone to damage.

Decrease the voltage

Particularly when working outside, you can significantly reduce the risks by using lower voltages wherever possible. Many tools run off a low-voltage adaptor or 110-volt supply, which may also be suitable for temporary lights. Battery-operated tools may actually be more convenient for some jobs, particularly those in cramped spaces (where there can be a greater risk of electric shock, especially if there is a lot of earthed metalwork) or when working some distance from a power supply when a long extension cable would be the only alternative.

Final precautions

When you finish using any tools, switch them off and unplug them, keeping cables neatly coiled to protect them. Remove or label any faulty equipment so that it is not used by anyone else. If you must leave cables in place where there is heavy traffic of equipment or walking, consider using protective cable covers to avoid wear and tear.

Lastly, make sure that you have a well-stocked (and recently checked) first aid kit to hand, as well as the right kind of fire extinguishers. Dry powder or CO2 gas extinguishers are the only ones suitable for electrical fires. Use CO2 if you can, since the powder leaves a residue that can damage tools and equipment. Water and foam extinguishers should never be used since these carry the risk of electric shock.

A guest blog article submitted on behalf of

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