Testing is a tricky business, not only the meticulous procedures this essential activity can require, but also the potential business burden it creates if unnecessary tests are carried out.
Testing may be carried out for regulatory reasons or simply as part of a company’s total quality management (TQM) system or both. In the construction industry, whether testing occurs can mean the difference between a productive day or the cost of lost time. A contractor, for example, may not be legally allowed onto the site if their tools do not comply with regulations and the construction site’s insurance needs.
The challenge then, and this is where companies can benefit from professional advice, is when and when not to test for regulatory reasons.
There is a clear business need for industry sectors where there is widespread use of portable electrical appliances, for expertise in how often and how much Portable Appliance Testing (PAT) is necessary; to gain the benefit of that equipment while avoiding unnecessary cost.
It is no small problem, the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) own estimate in 2012 put the nationwide cost from unnecessary testing at around £30 million every year. Clearly, professional advice on the issue has not been sought by enough companies.
PAT testing legislation in the UK has been around since 1974 with the Health and Safety at Work Act but more specifically since 1989 with The Electricity at Work Regulations.
Today, the HSE explains in its own documents that the PAT requirements under the Electricity at Work Regulations do not specify what needs to be done, by whom or how frequently. The rule that must be obeyed is simply that electrical equipment must be in a safe condition for its use in the workplace.
According to the HSE’s own documentation, the employer should decide the level of maintenance needed according to the risk. The HSE also recommends that factors that need to be considered include, the increased risk if the equipment isn’t used correctly, if the equipment isn’t suitable for the job, or if it is used in a harsh environment.
A more obvious factor that can be overlooked is simply, does the item actually need a PAT? A simple visual inspection, spotting loose cables or checking the plug may be all that is needed. This activity, especially the visual observation could be carried as part of a member of staff’s duties. It does not necessarily require expertise.
In construction, weather conditions on site can take their toll on equipment. Degradation of the protective casing or insulation or electrical cabling can all occur due to cracks from weathering. Checking equipment will need to be on a more frequent routine basis.
While a piece of equipment’s appearance can tell an evaluator a lot about its condition, often testing is the only way to be sure a costly failure is not imminent.
What the law does not require is the person carrying out a PAT test to be someone with the sort of qualification that would be necessary for repair, namely an electrician. What is important for the HSE is the tester having the right equipment and a greater knowledge than what would be needed for a visual inspection.
However, that evaluator still needs to be someone with relevant knowledge and experience to check appliances and know how to comply with PAT rules.
The HSE does specify that all portable equipment is visually inspected either every six months or up to every four years, depending on the type of equipment. Equipment that is not double insulated should have a PAT test either after one or up to five years; again, depending on the type of apparatus. “Many companies approach portable appliance testing (PAT) with a blanket approach of annual testing, paying a fee per item. However, it is a myth that portable appliance testing is a legal requirement or that it needs to be undertaken annually,” health and safety professional, John Southall, a director at Southalls, explains.
And there is no legal requirement to keep records of all inspections or tests, but the HSE recommends a maintenance system whose historical data that can help determine the frequency of PAT testing. Southall’s professional opinion is that: “PAT should be undertaken at a frequency related to the amount of movement it [the equipment] is subjected to and the environment it’s used in.”
Another common-sense recommendation is the immediate removal from operation of damaged or faulty equipment for repair or disposal. If it is to be repaired then the HSE recommends someone with suitable training, skills and knowledge.
The challenge remains, how often and in what way should PAT be carried out and where can a competent tester to be found? Fortunately, there are companies, like Southalls, that can provide this professional health and safety expertise to avoid the costs of unnecessary testing.
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