In offices all over the country, workers regularly plug in their personal electrical items, oblivious to the fact that they could be compromising the safety of the entire office. Many employees don’t think twice about powering mobile phones, tablets and e-cigarettes at their desk, with some even bringing in their own fans and heaters as temperatures rise and fall.
More often than not, managers don’t question the use of these personal devices; either because they’re unaware of it or because they’re relieved not to have to be providing the items themselves. While this may save companies the expense and hassle of supplying these items for their staff, it could end up costing them dearly in the long run because unregulated electrical devices can be safety hazards.
To find out more about the electrical items that employees bring into the office, power module supplier CMD carried out an independent survey, asking 751 members of the UK public: “What electrical items have you brought from home and plugged into a socket at work?” Respondents were asked to select all answers that applied to them, bringing in 955 answers in total.
It’s no surprise that in a society where we’re becoming increasingly reliant on our phones the majority of respondents admitted to using their own phone chargers at work. Attracting 68.4% of the votes — over three times more than the second most popular answer — mobile phone chargers are by far the most common personal electrical item powered up in the workplace.
Worryingly, phone chargers — particularly cheap unbranded Apple copies — are notorious for burning out and causing electrical fires. Generic replacement chargers used instead of the original plug and cable provided with the phone are giving the fire brigade lots of problems. Made quickly using substandard parts, these chargers don’t meet UK safety regulations and put the user at risk of electrocution, critical burns or even causing a serious fire.
The fact that these counterfeit chargers look almost identical to the genuine models, and are so readily available on popular shopping sites, means many people are unaware of the potential dangers.
This test devised by the London Fire Brigade highlights how difficult it is to tell the difference between a genuine Apple charger and a fake.
Here’s what to look out for:
- On a genuine Apple product the plug pins have a matt finish and all look the same. On a fake the finish tends to be glossy or shiny and the pins are angled irregularly.
- On a fake plug the USB port is often positioned upside down.
- Fake chargers are lightweight and not as heavy as genuine Apple chargers, which weigh over 40g.
- The printed text on the faceplate of a counterfeit charger is much darker than the print on an Apple model.
- If a newly bought charger appears to be damaged, it’s unlikely to be genuine.
- Counterfeit chargers are significantly cheaper to buy than genuine products.
- Each year, 1.8 million phone chargers are bought online in the UK alone.
- Many of these devices are made in China for as little as 3p per unit. This means that they are made using poor-quality components, sometimes without safety features such as fuses.
- There has been a six-fold increase in the number of counterfeit electrical goods seized in the UK over the previous four years. A large percentage of these items were chargers.
- A counterfeit charger contains an average of 25 individual components, whereas a genuine Apple charger has over 60.
Laptop chargers received the second highest number of votes (22.4%). Again, using an unregulated replacement charger rather than the original means you’re putting your safety at risk.
A safer way to charge
Checking every staff member’s phone charger is clearly not a practical option for larger companies. So how do companies ensure that their employees only use recommended products?
A good alternative is to invest in wireless charging ports that can be positioned on desks or in communal areas of the office. This completely eradicates the need for employees to use their own chargers in the workplace.
Wireless charging also removes the threat of phones causing a breach in security. There have been reported incidents where employees have unwittingly enabled hackers to infiltrate the company system simply by plugging their phones into the USB port on an office computer.
A secure and convenient way to charge phones during the working day is via on-desk sockets or USB ports. Supplying genuine, PAT-tested phone chargers to use with these sockets and ports removes any concerns over employees’ safety.
The importance of PAT testing
The survey also revealed that it’s not uncommon for employees to bring in portable fans or heaters to regulate the temperature in their workspace. Again, these items could cause a fire if they’re not in full working condition.
To help minimise risk, the government health and safety laws stipulate that all portable electrical items used in an office environment must undergo portable appliance testing (PAT testing) to reduce the risk of devices causing injury to employees. With this in mind, it’s essential employees know that all personal items they bring into the office — including laptops, speakers, kettles and toasters — must be PAT-tested. PAT testing on everyday items is usually carried out by a trained member of staff so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem to implement internally.
Avoiding overloaded sockets
As well as controlling the quality of electrical devices, employers must also look out for overloaded plug sockets.
Just because a socket row has four available sockets doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s safe to plug in four appliances.
Although printers, monitors, desk lamps and laptops all use a relatively low amount of electricity, other electrical devices such as vacuum cleaners —which 10.2% of employees admitted to bringing to work — may need significantly more power.
Different combinations of electrical devices can easily overload a socket. So it’s vital that before you plug anything in, you check the current rating of the extension lead plus the power requirements for your individual appliance.
Most leads are 13 amps or less so it’s important to check that the combined appliances don’t exceed the maximum current rating of the extension lead and that the wattage isn’t more than 3000 watts.
This socket overload calculator will help you determine how much power your different appliances need.
Plug safety checklist
- Use only one extension lead per socket.
- Never plug one socket row into another – use specific connectable power systems if you need additional sockets.
- Don’t use block adaptors – they are often unfused which increases the chance of overloading.
- Individually fused, multiway bar extension leads are the safest option if you need additional plug sockets.
- Check for the following danger signs:
- Scorch marks on sockets
- Damaged or frayed leads
- Visible wires from inside the plug
- Smell of hot plastic
Sharing the above advice with your employees could make a significant difference to the safety of your workplace, especially as many workers will be largely unaware that by using unregulated electrical devices they’re putting themselves and their colleagues at risk. On a wider scale, this advice will also help protect employees in their homes, because if these items aren’t suitable for use in the office, they won’t be fit for use at home either.