Electrical safety in the office—what the law says and how to comply

Using electrical equipment safely and responsibly in the office is crucial, not to mention a legal requirement for all employers and a duty expected of employees.

On this page, we cover:

  • what the law says about electrical safety in the workplace
  • what you must do to make sure your electrical equipment and systems are safe
  • some do’s and don’ts when using electrical equipment in the office

Quick links:

Electrical systems and equipment—what companies must do by law

As an employer, you have a legal responsibility to protect your employees’ health and safety. In the UK, this duty of care is set down in a law called the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

Within that law are the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989. These dictate every aspect of how electricity should be used in the workplace, including making sure electrical equipment is safe and fit for purpose.

The regulations not only give employers a legal duty of care, but place responsibility on employees, contractors and other similarly employed workers too.

We cover the main guidelines below. To read the regulations in full, click here

Electricity at Work Regulations 1989

Systems, work activities and protective equipment

You must:

  • build, install and maintain all electrical systems in a way that prevents danger
  • make sure employees do nothing that might cause danger when operating, using, maintaining or working near an electrical system
  • make sure the equipment you provide to protect people from the hazards of electrical systems is suitable, fully maintained and used in the proper way

Strength and capability of electrical equipment

You must not:

  • use any electrical equipment whose strength and capability is so excessive that it might cause danger

Adverse or hazardous environments

You must:

  • build any electrical equipment which may reasonably be exposed to:
    • mechanical damage
    • extreme weather, temperature or pressure
    • water, dirt, dust or corrosion
    • any flammable or explosive substance

in a way that prevents it causing danger as a result of being exposed to those conditions.

Insulation, protection and placing of conductors

You must:

  • protect any potentially dangerous conductors and cover them with insulating material
  • take precautions to make sure they cannot cause people danger

Earthing or other suitable precautions

You must:

  • take precautions to prevent conductors from becoming charged, either by earthing them or employing some similar method

Integrity of referenced conductors

You must not:

  • place anything in an earthed circuit conductor that might break the circuit’s electrical continuity or introduce high impedance, without taking suitable precautions to prevent any potential dangers

Connections

You must:

  • make sure every joint and connection in a system is mechanically and electrically suitable for use

Means for protecting from excess of current

You must:

  • provide an efficient, suitably located method of protecting an excess of current from all parts of an electrical system

Means for cutting off the supply and for isolation

You must:

  • provide suitable means for:
    • cutting off the supply of electricity to any electrical equipment
    • isolating any electrical equipment

Precautions for work on equipment made dead

You must:

  • take precautions to prevent electrical equipment which has been made dead while work is being done on or near it from becoming electrically charged for as long as the work is being carried out

Work on or near live conductors

You must:

  • make sure no-one works on or near any live conductor (other than one suitably covered with insulating material) unless:
    • it is unreasonable for the conductor to be made dead
    • it is reasonable for the person to be carrying out the work while the conductor is live
    • you have taken suitable precautions (such as providing suitable protective equipment) to prevent injury

Working space, access and lighting

You must:

  • provide adequate working space, means of access and lighting on or around any electrical equipment whenever the equipment is being used or worked on, as a way of preventing injury

Persons to be competent to prevent danger and injury

You must:

  • make sure any person working with electrical systems or equipment has the technical knowledge or experience they need to avoid injury or cause danger

Electrical safety certificates

Providing an electrical safety certificate—known as an electrical inspection certificate (EIC)—is likely to be a condition of your business insurance.

This details the installation work, inspections and testing you’ve carried out on the fixed electrical wiring in your building.

Who is responsible—landlords and tenants

Landlords of business premises are responsible for the building’s electrical safety certificate and arranging any necessary repairs to the wiring systems.

Tenants have a duty to inspect, test and maintain all the electrical appliances.

How to get an EIC

Arrange to have a “periodic inspection” carried out. This is similar to portable appliance testing (PAT), but a qualified electrician comes in to inspect and test your fixed wiring rather than your portable appliances.

It’s recommended that you have a periodic inspection every five years.

After the periodic inspection, you’ll be issued with an electrical installation condition report (EICR). This will list any faults, damage or problems that mean you’re failing to comply with the relevant laws, regulations and standards.

How to check the safety of electrical office equipment

Under the Electricity at Work Regulations, you have a legal duty to keep all your portable electrical equipment in a safe condition.

However, one problem with the regulations is that they don’t tell you how to do this, or when—just that you need to!

Types of safety checks

Generally, the best method—as recommended by the Health and Safety Executive—is to employ a system of three safety checks:

  • User checks
  • Visual inspections
  • Portable appliance testing (PAT)

We explain these further below.

SAFETY CHECKS FOR PORTABLE ELECTRICAL EQUIPMENT

Type of check

Carried out by?

How often?

User checks

The employee using the equipment

Before every use

Visual inspections

An employee with basic electrical knowledge (usually gained through training)

Depends on the class of equipment, but at regular intervals:

Class I (earthed)

Every 6–12 months

Class II (handheld)

Every 6–12 months

Class II (not handheld, moved infrequently )

Every 2–4 years

IT equipment (computers, monitors)

Every 2–4 years

Portable appliance testing (PAT)

An electrician, or an employee with sufficient knowledge and experience (i.e. more than that needed for visual inspections)

Recommended once a year (but not compulsory)

User checks

It’s good practice to have employees check their electrical equipment (the device itself, and all the cords) before they use it. They should do this with the equipment disconnected from the electricity supply.

What to look for

Damage to cables, plugs, wall outlets or a device’s outer cover

Burn marks on equipment, electrical cords, plugs and sockets

Trapped or knotted cables

Equipment that may have suffered water damage

Visual inspections

Doing a proper visual inspection requires some basic electrical knowledge. While it incorporates the user checks mentioned above, it also involves more closely examining the plug’s inner components.

What to look for
  • Damage to any part of the plug
  • Fuses and wires connected correctly
  • Exposed wiring only at the terminals
  • Terminals screwed tight
  • Cable clamped tightly in place

If your equipment has moulded plugs, you will only be able to check the fuses.

Portable appliance testing (PAT)

While a visual inspection is usually enough to detect most electrical faults, some issues can only be identified through portable appliance testing (PAT).

This is where a suitably trained person (often an electrical contractor from outside the company) tests the portable equipment and marks it with a “pass” or “fail”.

PAT is a three-part process:

  1. Visual inspection
  2. Earth continuity test
  3. Insulation resistance test

PAT process

Reason

Visual inspection

Checks for damage, loose wiring, problems with fuses and so on.

Earth continuity test

Checks for a good connection between the mains plug and the earth point on the device.

Carried out on all Class I electrical equipment

Insulation resistance test

Tests the cable to make sure there’s very little current escaping through the insulating sheath that covers the electrical wires.

Only portable equipment needs to go through full PAT. In a lot of cases, the initial visual inspection will identify most risks.

Although the law isn’t specific about how often you should put your equipment through PAT, it’s generally recommended that you do so once a year.

However, when deciding whether testing is needed, you should consider:

  • the age of the equipment
  • how often it’s used
  • whether it might have been used incorrectly
  • whether it’s been altered or repaired in the past

What is “portable electrical equipment”?

Although the law doesn’t define “portable equipment”, it’s taken to mean any electrical equipment that:

  • has a cable and plug
  • can be disconnected from its power supply and moved (as opposed to being hard-wired into a wall)

In a typical office, this would include:

  • IT equipment—PCs, laptops, printers, photocopiers
  • desk equipment—lamps, portable heaters, fans
  • chargers and power modules—phone chargers, extension leads, multi-way adaptors
  • kitchen equipment—microwaves, kettles, toasters, fridges

Classes of electrical equipment

Electrical equipment can also be classified based on its electrical output and whether it’s earthed or double-insulated (see the table below).

There are a number of classifications, and each has its own symbol. The three classes you’re most likely to encounter are as follows:

Class

Symbol

What it means

Class I equipment

Equipment that has only basic insulation and so is “earthed”—in other words, it has an earth circuit and earth wire for protection.

Without the earth connection, it could cause an electric shock if you have defective equipment.

Examples: Kettles, microwaves, toasters

Class II equipment

Equipment that is “double-insulated”. This means it has extra insulation and needs only live and neutral wires. There is no earth circuit and earth inside the plug.

Examples: Desktop printers, lamps

Class III equipment

Equipment which operates at such a low voltage that it’s incapable of causing an electric shock. May be used alongside devices in different classes (e.g. laptop chargers might be Class 2).

Examples: Laptops, smartphones

Keeping records of your electrical safety testing

When you conduct your safety checks, it’s good practice to keep a record for each piece of equipment. This should include:

  • the date you checked the equipment
  • the date you next need to check the equipment
  • the results from having the equipment inspected/tested

This website has template documents you can use for your record-keeping. You’ll find a PAT certificate here and an electrical installation condition report (EICR) here.

Electrical safety do’s and don’ts

DO

  • Use only equipment that’s earthed or double-insulated
  • Switch off all appliances when not in use
  • Inspect cables and equipment regularly, and report any faults straight away
  • Disconnect equipment before carrying out repairs or servicing
  • Use power modules with surge protection
  • Stop using equipment if it feels overly hot or sounds strange (e.g. buzzing or humming noises)

DON’T

  • Overload power sockets
  • Plug one extension lead/power module into another
  • Leave wires or components exposed
  • Run cables in areas where people are likely to trip over them
  • Use electrical equipment in areas where it’s likely to get wet

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