Understanding Safety : Electrical Safety – PAT Testing Principles and Practice
The idea of electrical portable appliance testing (PAT) is relatively recent in Ireland and therefore there can be some confusion about what this basic term means, how it is carried out and what equipment is covered under the testing requirement. For our discussion, portable appliance testing does not include electrical installation testing. Electrical installations in Ireland are covered under the 4th Edition of the ETCI (Electro-Technical Council of Ireland) document National Rules for Electrical Installations, ET101:2008 and are not included in this discussion.
The unsafe use of electricity has a number of associated hazards such as electrocution, causing burns from accidental contact and a potential ignition source for fires or causing explosions in hazardous atmospheres; that is why these and other risks must be identified, assessed and controlled in the workplace. PAT testing is a procedure to ensure that electrical equipment and appliances are safe to use and is normally undertaken as part of a regular work equipment maintenance regime; the extent and frequency of any testing will depend upon assessing the risk of the appliances and equipment in use and the work environment which may be dusty, in damp or wet conditions or in 24-hour use.
The Legal Framework
There are no specific PAT testing regulations but the requirements for the electrical safety of portable equipment are addressed in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007 (as amended) within Part 3 – Electricity. Section 83 – Portable Equipment requires an employer to ensure that:
“(b) portable equipment is maintained in a manner fit for safe use, and
(c) portable equipment which is—
(i) exposed to conditions causing deterioration liable to result in danger, and
(ii) supplied at a voltage exceeding 125 volts alternating current, is—
(I) visually checked by the user before use, and
(II) periodically inspected by a competent person, appropriate to the nature location and use of the equipment.
(2) An employer shall ensure, where appropriate, that a competent person—
(a) tests any portable equipment described in paragraph (1)(c)(i) and (ii), and
(b) certifies whether or not the portable equipment (including any cables and plugs was, on the day of test, as far as could reasonably be ascertained, safe and without risk to persons coming into direct or indirect contact with any live part of the equipment.”1
As in many other areas of safety, employers need to risk assess the electrical safety of portable electrical equipment to identify the risk profile of their equipment. For example, an office printer will have a different risk profile and therefore a different inspection requirement that a portable hand grinder used in a busy metal workshop.
The General Requirements
Let’s look at the components of a PAT testing regime that would cover the majority of low risk portable electrical equipment. We can consider that there are three components to this process:
- User checks – Every time an item of portable electrical equipment is used, the user should check for issues such as damaged plug pins or evidence of burn marks on the plug, the electrical power lead is in good condition, coloured wires are not visible from the power lead into the plug, the tool has been and is properly stored, there is no obvious damage to the tool etc. Even where equipment has been tested and verified as safe to use, that does not mean that something has not impacted the equipment since that test and that is why this simple but basic precaution is an important control.
- Formal visual inspections – This next level of inspection can include the same basic criteria as user checks and in addition checking that the equipment is being appropriately used and is suitable for the task. The electrical plug can also be checked; for evidence of water ingress or burn marks, the fuse is the correct type, the wires are correctly located, no bare wires are seen and the wire in the terminals are secure. This process should include the tagging and unique identification of electrical equipment.
- Electrical testing – Depending upon the type of electrical equipment, it may also be necessary to periodically electrically test such equipment using specialist electrical testing equipment. The important distinction here is between earthed equipment and double insulated equipment and this is where the risk assessment process is required to identify the risk presented for the electrical equipment an organisation uses.
The above table is an example of a basic portable appliance inspection and testing schedule which would be expected und in the majority of Irish workplaces. It is simple and straightforward and provides guidance on how to manage the safety of portable electrical equipment in the workplace. 2 Employers also need to consider PAT testing for those items which are not necessarily tools themselves such as electrical extension leads which are often used as a component in an electrical system.
The use of self-adhesive labels or cable tags are a common means used to identify equipment with a unique ID and also to indicate the date of a PAT test having been undertaken. It is also important to document both the electrical safety risk assessment, the procedure to follow for this important maintenance activity and the inspection records created from checks and inspections.
Employers must ensure that anyone involved in the testing and inspection of electrical equipment must be competent, that is to have the necessary technical knowledge and experience including:
- Adequate knowledge of electricity
- Adequate experience of electrical work
- Adequate understanding of the installation type to be worked on and practical experience of that class of installation
- Understanding of the hazards which may arise during the work and the precautions which need to be taken
- Ability to recognise at all times whether it is safe for work to continue.3
However, that does not mean that an electrician is necessarily required for this activity. The degree of electrical competency required will be in direct relation to the electrical equipment being assessed and as identified in the risk assessment.
Portable appliance testing is a basic maintenance activity and if properly implemented, should cover the requirements for electrical safety as per the General Application regulations. The starting position is a risk assessment process to identify the portable equipment hazards in a workplace, the equipment used and the controls required to minimise the identified risks. Any procedure needs to be documented and records created from that inspection process. The required level of competency needs to be identified and testers should be trained and supervised according to that criteria.
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