Building a safer future

Electrical Safety First is the only UK-wide charity dedicated to reducing fires, deaths and injuries from electricity. CEO Lesley Rudd discusses the impact of COVID-19 and future developments in a post-pandemic landscape

As I write this, lockdown has been eased and we are feeling our way into a ‘new normal’, although it is still early days to specify exactly what that might be. However, one change wrought by the pandemic – which I sincerely hope continues to be properly acknowledged – is our recognition of the importance of key workers. This group of people are crucial to our lives and our economy. And it is a group which includes electricians, who are well positioned to increase their significance in a post-pandemic landscape. One issue highlighted by COVID-19 is the climate crisis. The reduction in international and domestic travel has led to a significant improvement in air quality, heightening our awareness of the environmental emergency and our need to address it. Today, with electricity increasingly produced from renewable sources, the electrotechnical industry has a major opportunity to be part of the solution to this critical problem. Heating our homes makes up a significant part of our energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Decarbonising heat – reducing and eliminating the greenhouse gases it produces – is essential to tackling climate change. To achieve net zero greenhouse emissions by 2045, we need to heat Scotland’s buildings with low-carbon heating, such as electrically operated heat pumps. Making new homes zero-carbon has been described as the ‘low hanging fruit’ and this will indeed be far easier to achieve than decarbonising existing homes.

“It’s been estimated that at least 80% of the homes we live in will be those that exist today. So retrofitting them will be essential”

Currently, 81% of Scottish homes are heated by gas and, by 2045, it’s been estimated that at least 80% of the homes we live in will be those that exist today. So retrofitting them will be essential. In response to climate concerns, there has also been increased focus on various measures to accelerate innovation in new low-carbon technologies, such as electric vehicles (EVs) – yet another area of opportunity for the electro-technical industry. People usually choose to have a dedicated EV home charging point installed because it’s generally faster to charge and has built-in safety features. New infrastructure and planning measures will need to be introduced to meet the need for more of these domestic charging points and address installation issues for apartments and areas of high-density housing. But ‘green’ policies alone will not achieve this. We need appropriately trained and qualified electricians to make it a reality that is both effective and safe. COVID-19 has also accelerated the shift to homeworking. But while it might offer various conveniences, it does carry safety concerns. Almost 75% of all domestic fires in Scotland arise from electricity, with most caused by electrical products. And, inevitably, homeworking requires the use of several of them, from laptops and tablets, to phones and heaters. Our research discovered more than three quarters of Scots now working from home are doing so for the first time, in response to the pandemic. And 38% of them have more appliances plugged into extension leads than usual, often unaware that overloading sockets is a fire risk. At the launch of lockdown, we ran a consumer awareness campaign around electrical safety while homeworking and offered various online tools to help. We also stressed the importance of using registered electricians and not attempting DIY electrical work. This is particularly important, as the development of home offices may well enhance the mainstreaming of the smart home – and offer an opportunity for suitably trained

electricians. If the climate emergency has highlighted the importance of electricity, the COVID-19 crisis has (inevitably) highlighted the importance of ‘home’. Our homes are our safe place, the refuge we retire to at the end of the day and, increasingly for some, a place to work from. The primary mission of Electrical Safety First is to help people use electricity safely in their home. COVID-19 has also highlighted inequalities in our society that are reflected in our homes. Despite electricity being the number one cause of all of Scotland’s domestic fires, housing legislation is subject to a ‘tenure lottery’ – with different levels of protection for different tenures. We believe everybody should feel electrically safe in their own home, regardless of tenure, and this forms the basis of our ‘Inequality Street’ campaign. Electrical Safety First led the charge for regular electrical checks in Scotland’s private rented sector, which came into force in 2015. And social landlords in Scotland must now also undertake five-yearly electrical checks. So our present focus is on extending this safety essential to mixed-tenure blocks and the owner-occupied sector.

“The development of home offices may well enhance the mainstreaming of the smart home – and offer an opportunity for suitably trained electricians”

The probability of fire spread can be exacerbated in high density housing, especially in multi-storey apartments or blocks of flats. And many homeowners are older and vulnerable people, yet there is no requirement for regular checks in this tenure. We will continue to campaign for a uniform set of safety measures, across all tenures, to ensure consistent electrical safety. We believe in a collaborative approach and we work with government and industry – and a range of other, relevant bodies – to develop solutions. For example, as members of the Scottish Government’s Electricians Working Group, alongside SELECT, our objective is to ensure the safety of electrical installations. The charity also sits on the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service’s Electrical Safety Working Group, which works in partnership to reduce the risk of electrical products and services causing fire, injury and death. And our collaboration with organisations such as SELECT is also fundamental to our work in creating a joined-up approach to electrical safety. Post-COVID, I see such collaboration as even more important. Electricity was already becoming increasingly significant before COVID-19 but this crisis has changed our world and refocused our priorities. We have seen electricians fitting out the temporary NHS Louisa Jordan Hospital at the SEC in Glasgow, carrying out essential repair work under difficult circumstances – and now playing a key role in restarting the economy. I grew up in the north east of England, where the focus on getting a ‘proper job’ meant training in a practical skill to gain a trade. And in the hierarchy of trades, electrical apprenticeships were up there at the top. Many other apprenticeships that were important during my childhood – such as in shipbuilding and mining – have faded. But today, electricians are still as important as ever. In a post-pandemic landscape, they have the opportunity to become even more so. But key to such development, is the provision of a highly trained, skilled, and trusted workforce. Because in an electric world, we put our lives in your hands.

Throughout the year, Electrical Safety First hosts a number of major events to support industry in staying up-to date with legislative changes, product innovation and risk prevention.

Its forthcoming product safety conference – A Sustainable Future – will be held online in November. To find out more, visit: tinyurl.com/thw4vlo

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