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Proper Electrical Safety Testing Takes Shock Out of Workplace

This unfortunate incident highlights an important question that all commercial establishments must address: Are we doing everything we can to protect our employees and customers? In England, that crucial query has a two-sided answer.

On the one hand, there is a European directive stating somewhat broadly that employers are duty-bound to provide a safe working environment. On the other hand, there are no regulations and no legislation specifically stating that testing of electrical equipment must be performed. However, as evidenced by the aforementioned case, testing would likely have identified the damaged dryer before the tragedy occurred.

Why hadn't the restaurant conducted the testing? An investigation uncovered the fact that management had considered testing but had ultimately ruled against it, claiming it to be unnecessary. But why did they deem it unnecessary, given that the dryer's close proximity to water rendered it potentially hazardous?

In the United States, the hazards of electrical shock have produced some staggering numbers. U.S. Labor Department statistics indicate that averages of over 4,000 non-disabling and 3,000 disabling electrical contact work-related injuries are recorded annually in this country. Additionally, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) one person is electrocuted at the workplace everyday.

As a direct result of these incidences and statistics, many companies are now taking the issue of electrical safety testing personally. In doing this, each individual manufacturer is able to create a market for its products not only for the company's sake, but because it is simply the right thing to do. The Seaward Group is one company in particular that is pushing the idea of electrical safety testing very aggressively.

"Absent any specific legislation regarding electrical safety testing, we have been promoting the concept of overall workplace security, which is in fact legislated," said Jim Wallace, the current product and technical manager who has been with Seaward for 10 years. "In order to meet these legal standards, companies are required to demonstrate that they've taken reasonable steps to prevent hazards to employees. How they do that is their choice.

"Our argument is that, at least in terms of electrical systems and appliances, testing is the most robust way to fulfill a legal obligation," he continued. "If a company engages in a risk analysis and concludes that there are no hazards, does that constitute due diligence - especially if there is a subsequent incident? Why would any company feel that electrical safety testing isn't warranted?"

Even putting aside the legal aspect for a moment, Wallace contends that employers carry a social responsibility to maintain a workplace in which people can reasonably feel safe. And his gut feeling is that the vast majority of employers take this responsibility quite seriously.

Apparently, his gut is right. While exact numbers are not available, it is estimated that the percentage of companies who are routinely performing this testing is in the area of about 75 percent - perhaps higher - and growing by leaps and bounds. The popularity of electrical safety is owed, at least in part, to a classic snowball effect.

"Years ago, few people did this type of testing," said Wallace. "But as more and more companies engaged in it, it began to catch on. The peer pressure from other companies became significant, to the point where it is becoming commonplace."

Naturally, there is the issue of litigation, which can certainly catalyze proactive safety measures. If, as an employer, you figure the costs of testing - both the equipment and the time to do it internally or outsource it - and compare that with the cost of even one lawsuit, it becomes clear that the testing is far more economical.

Obviously, the primary purpose of testing is to eliminate the hazard of shock. In doing so, the tester is primarily measuring the integrity of the ground bond as well as electrical isolation. If those two parameters are intact, the possibility of shock is erased. However, a review of testing results over a period of time can also reveal appliance or insulation degradation. Take a metal-bodied appliance that contains a heating element - an electrical kettle, for instance. The mineral content of the water can cause the insulation around the heating element to deteriorate; as it does, the element will become more porous and will present a potential fire hazard. This is significant, given that a great number of domestic fires are caused by electrical faults.

It should be noted that safety testing does not always necessitate the use of electrical testing equipment. In fact, there is a piece of specialized equipment that can be highly effective in the right instances: the human eye. Some defects may be picked up from simple visual inspection. Perhaps there is an appliance in which an employee spilled coffee. Or perhaps a wire is sticking out of a drill. These are cases in which a visual inspection may reveal an obvious defect, which will immediately raise a red flag about that appliance's operation.

However, in a professional setting it's always best to have a comprehensive electrical safety testing program in place, as the actual degradation or malfunction of an electrical appliance can stem from several sources that can't be seen with the naked eye, including normal wear and tear and manufacturers' defects. One other source that employers often neglect to consider, however, is the person who is repairing or servicing a piece of equipment. It's very common for someone to come into an office and, in the process of servicing a copier, dismantle the machine into dozens or even hundreds of pieces. Maybe in the process of putting it back together, he or she accidentally put a casing screw through a hot wire. An employer deserves some assurance that the service person has reassembled the machine correctly and has not compromised its safety. 

Once the decision has been made to engage in electrical safety testing, the next factor that needs to be considered is which devices to purchase. The marketplace is rife with devices of varying degrees of quality and functionality, so the purchase decision can be a daunting one. Without a doubt, accuracy, compliance with standards, and reliability are of fundamental importance. However, in general terms, there are some other guidelines that should help facilitate the buying process:

  • Appropriateness. Different tests should be performed on IT equipment than would be on power tools. This makes it essential to select equipment that is designed for the equipment that needs to be tested. Likewise, it is imperative to match the capabilities of the machine to the skill of the person performing the test. 
  • Functionality. Do you need a high-end instrument that provides a wide spectrum of data, or will a basic instrument with a "go or no/go" indicator suffice? Also, there are manual devices that may be adequate for the job, but electronic or microprocessor-based devices will provide the option of datalogging. This allows the user to keep a record of equipment measurements over time and create a path of traceability; and in the unfortunate event of an accident, it should be relatively easy to track down the cause. 
  • Portability. Are you testing a fixed system, where the device's portability will be a requirement? Or are you testing appliances that can be brought to the device? 
  • Ease of data entry. Many companies that perform electrical safety testing are compensated per test. As a result, the faster they can complete each test, the more lucrative their business can be. With many tests, there is no way to shorten the actual test time; however, an instrument that is easy to use and that facilitates data entry can shorten the overall process time, increasing productivity.

There is also the question of who should conduct the testing. There are normally two different ways to approach this task: have someone in-house do the testing, or contract it to an outside firm. Either way, there are two guiding principles that must be followed:

  • The protection of the operator and surrounding environment
  • The ability to interpret the results and understand them correctly.

A company performing its own testing may rely on maintenance personnel or someone who is trained in testing procedures. But as outlined in the first principle, it is crucial to ensure that they are competent to test; that is, they are able to perform the test without creating harm to themselves or those around them. Just as important is the ability to interpret the data, as there is an obvious problem with someone who thinks an appliance is safe when, in fact, it is not.

Clearly, the concept of electrical safety testing is a sound one. And while it is not specifically legislated, the general regulations related to workplace safety certainly warrant it. Whether on an annual or bi-annual basis, electrical safety testing can play a major role in creating a safe environment not only for employees, but customers as well. And that shouldn't come as a shock to anyone.

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