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The all-new 5th edition of the IET Code of Practice for In-Service Inspection and Testing of Electrical Equipment

In this article, James Eade, author of the 5th edition, continues his brief insight into the changes to this important Code, now available from the IET.

The last instalment of this article gave an insight into some of the changes that the 5th edition of the IET Code of Practice for In-Service Inspection and Testing of Electrical Equipment (commonly referred to by many using the easier-to-pronounce initials ‘COPISITEE’) has introduced.

As hinted at in the last article, a significant change (perhaps the most significant, depending on your view!) is a complete review of the frequency of testing, previously given in Table 7.1 of the 4th edition. This table has now disappeared in the 5th edition and has not been replaced. This will come as a shock to many, but if the rationale for its removal is understood, it becomes apparent that for many dutyholders, the existence of a table can be more of a hindrance than a help.

Equipment should be checked annually, shouldn’t it?

As briefly noted in the previous article, the focus of the COPISITEE is to encourage electrical equipment used in the workplace to be checked for damage or deterioration that may lead to danger. The primary (but not the only) legislation that governs electrical safety in the workplace is the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 (EWR). These require equipment that may be subject to deterioration, damage or other effects that could cause danger to be maintained. Danger in the context of the Regulations is broadly defined as the risk of injury, which could arise not only from electric shock but also from electrical arcing, explosions, burning or even smoke inhalation from an electrical fire for example.

Nearly all electrical equipment is subject to wear and tear in general use; thermal damage to insulation or components (electricity is usually dissipated as heat in equipment), accidental damage, damage caused by electrical faults, and even environmental damage, such as exposure to solar radiation are all examples of deterioration found in electrical equipment.

Because most electrical equipment is – to varying degrees – susceptible to damaging effects, it follows that it is necessary to maintain most electrical equipment. This is typically accomplished by inspecting it and, where appropriate, conducting electrical tests to ascertain if it is suitable for continued use and, importantly, not likely to give rise to danger. This approach is illustrated in the title for the Code of Practice: In-Service Inspection and Testing.

With the need for inspection and testing identified, the next question, of course, is “How often should I conduct the maintenance activity of inspection and testing?” To be blunt, the short answer is “We don’t know.” That statement, though, should not be seen as a dereliction by the guardians of electrical safety at the IET; but taken as a hint of the difficulty in specifying a definitive answer. It is a problem that has been discussed ad nauseam in electrical safety committees for decades and is best illustrated using an example of two offices, as follows.

In the first office, staff undergo basic electrical safety check awareness training as part of their induction. The company policy on electrical safety in the workplace is explained to the new employees and regular ‘toolbox talks’ are held. Consequently, employees are good at reporting electrical hazards on equipment when they use it and the issues are resolved promptly. It is a new office building and residual current device (RCD) protection has been installed on most final circuits, providing additional protection for users of the electrical equipment.

In the second office, staff are mostly field-sales operatives and technicians who are not regularly in the office itself, so opportunities for training and tool-box talks are fewer. It is an old building and doesn’t have RCDs fitted on all socket-outlets, but the electrical installation itself is checked every five years. The staff manual doesn’t (yet) mention electrical safety in the workplace.

Should the electrical equipment in both offices be checked at the same frequency? Evidently not: it can be seen that the risk of an electrical hazard going undetected is more likely in the second office than in the first, so the second office should conduct a formal inspection and/or testing activity more often.

The same approach can be applied to other industries. The risk profile of a factory using electrical equipment to make computer keyboards, for example, is different to that of a factory using electrical equipment to make steel bridge components; the profile of a business hotel in a city is different to that of a bed and breakfast hotel in the countryside; the profile of a construction site for a children’s play area in the park is different to that of a construction site for a railway line; the profile of a company hiring office vending machines is different to that of a company hiring Christmas lighting once a year – and so on.

Cleary not all offices/factories/hotels/construction sites/hire companies have the same risk profile and the maintenance activities should differ accordingly. For this reason, it is near-impossible to state in a Code of Practice what a suitable interval is. Categorizing industries is not the correct approach: as exampled above, what is reasonable for one company might be quite unreasonable for the next, even if they are both in the same industry.  

When one considers the breadth of workplaces to which the COPISITEE applies, from military bases to hospitals, hotels and holiday homes, the scale of the task of providing specific guidance for industry sectors becomes apparent. It also explains why dutyholders may struggle with prescribed published intervals which they feel are inappropriate for their business.

Assessing the risk

The key to good electrical safety management is understanding the nature of the electrical equipment in the workplace and how it is used. The best person to decide how to maintain it, and how often, is the person who knows the equipment and the environment it is in: i.e. the dutyholder.

The 5th edition of the COPISITEE provides advice for dutyholders on how to conduct a risk assessment for determining suitable intervals, based on the core factors of:

  • the environment: equipment installed in a benign environment, such as an office, will suffer less damage than equipment in an arduous environment, such as a construction site.
  • the users: if the users of equipment report damage as and when it becomes evident, hazards will be mitigated. Conversely, if equipment is likely to receive unreported abuse, or equipment damage be ignored, more frequent inspection and testing will be required.
  • the equipment construction: the safety of Class I equipment is dependent upon a connection with the earth of the fixed electrical installation, whereas, for example, Class II doesn’t rely on any protection fitted within the installation.
  • the equipment type: equipment that is hand-held is more likely to be damaged than fixed equipment and the risk of electric shock in the event of a fault is likely to be greater.
  • the frequency of use: this is important, particularly where mobile or hand-held equipment is concerned, because it may have implications for service life and exposure to possible damage.
  • the type of installation method: installation methods should be taken into account, especially when assessing fixed equipment. For example, the isolator position and cable management can be an important factor when assessing for risk. The type of protective devices fitted in the distribution will also have a bearing.
  • previous records: where available, previous records of inspection, testing and maintenance should be used to evaluate the required frequency of subsequent inspections and tests. These will provide a history of the environment and users and show how all this information affects the condition of the equipment within the environment.
  • the functional in-service life: some equipment may have an intentionally short service life because of built-in components such as internal batteries, or software obsolescence in IT equipment, for example.

In summary, there is no right or wrong answer in determining a suitable interval, but it is unlikely to be annually in many cases, as has been the ‘norm’ in many workplaces. All of the factors described will need to be considered in a risk assessment and the responses to each will allow the dutyholder to make an informed decision as to an appropriate frequency of inspection and testing. Example risk assessments can be found in Appendix 9 of the 5th edition, which demonstrates how to look at a workplace and analyse the factors described above, and then decide on appropriate intervals.

The Code of Practice is now published and copies can be purchased online.