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The role of visual inspection

14 January 2014

Jim Wallace explains why visual inspection of electrical appliances is a necessary step before any testing is undertaken.

The clear message from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the IET Code of Practice for the In Service Inspection and Testing of Electrical Equipment is that electrical equipment maintenance regimes need to be based on robust risk assessment 

Only when the extent of a potential hazard has been assessed can it be managed through a programme of inspection and testing.

The legal requirements relating to the use and maintenance of electrical equipment are contained in the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989, which place duties on dutyholders to control the risks arising from the use of electricity.

Dutyholders, aided by competent advisors if needed, must determine the level of maintenance needed according to the risk of an item becoming faulty, such as how it is constructed and where it is used.

Any risks can be managed by setting up an appropriate maintenance plan, which should be proactive rather than reactive.

Following a risk assessment, the effective maintenance of portable equipment can be achieved by a combination of user checks; formal visual inspections by a competent person and where necessary a combined inspection and test by an electrically competent person.

Formal visual inspection 

An important part of a maintenance regime is the formal visual inspection of electrical equipment by a trained person. Basic checks should be carried out by the person using the equipment to identify obvious damage, but formal visual inspection is necessary and can reveal the majority of potentially dangerous faults. It can also be the precursor to electrical testing to identify ‘invisible’ electrical faults.

Visual inspections can be carried out by a member of staff who has sufficient information and knowledge of what to look for. The suggested initial intervals for inspecting portable electrical equipment vary from every 2-3 years in some low risk working environments, to every 6 months or annually in more demanding locations. For example, tools on a construction site or in a factory will need much more frequent inspection than office equipment. In all cases the period between inspections should be reviewed with experience.

Faulty equipment should be taken out of service and not used again until repaired and, if necessary, tested. Regular and systematic inspections by a competent person should include the condition of extension leads, plugs and sockets. It is also important to consider whether the electrical equipment is being used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions and is suitable for the job.

Special additional checks could involve the removal of the plug cover to ensure that there is no internal damage, the correct fuse is in use and the wires are attached to the correct terminals. Although there is no requirement in the EAWR 1989 to keep records of equipment and of inspections and tests, the HSE Memorandum of Guidance (HSR25) advises that records of maintenance should be kept throughout the working life of equipment.

The IET Code of Practice also recommends that test results should be made available to subsequent test operatives. Written records are also advisable in terms of the risk assessments undertaken. For example, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require that a record is made of the significant findings of the risk assessment and what is already in place to control the risks.

Any record produced should be simple and focused on controls. If there are fewer than five employees it does not need to be written down. But it is useful to do this so it can be reviewed at a later date, for example if something changes. If there are five or more employees, the risk assessment must by law be written down. All of this advice reinforces the importance of effective recordkeeping and the value of indisputable evidence such as photographic images of visual inspections and risk assessments should not be overlooked.

The current guidance on maintaining the safety of electrical equipment puts considerable importance on effective and formal visual inspection, as well as on the relevance of comprehensive records. To meet this need the most advanced portable appliance testing instrumentation available is equipped with a built-in digital camera. This gives users the ability to take high quality images at the same time as user checks, inspections or testing is carried out. In this way it unequivocally shows the evidence and reasoning behind health and safety judgements taken at a particular time.

For complete traceability and comprehensive record keeping, images taken during risk assessments and visual inspections should also be tagged against the records of any electrical testing carried out. This is an important consideration in demonstrating compliance (or non-compliance) with the relevant regulations. If an incident or accident should occur, it can be particularly relevant in demonstrating that all due diligence was taken in preventing an unsafe situation.