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Better safe than sorry

Safe isolation saves lives, yet it’s still not always carried out. As part of a six-page special highlighting why it’s so vital, we speak to Louise Taggart, who has campaigned about the issue since losing her brother in an electrical incident

While the dangers of COVID are at the forefront of everyone’s mind, the other risks in our industry haven’t gone away.

It’s not just self-isolation that needs to be remembered, but also SAFE isolation – the life-saving procedure that ensures electrical circuits and equipment can be worked on safely.

Louise Taggart has campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of the issue since her brother Michael Adamson was killed when he cut a cable marked ‘Not in use’ that hadn’t been safely isolated.

Two recent fatalities in England and Northern Ireland have once again shown the deadly consequences of contact with electricity – 15 years after Michael tragically lost his life.

Changing the mindset

Despite the obvious dangers, some people still mistakenly believe, ‘It won’t happen to me’. Louise said: “Some people seem to think they’re bulletproof and don’t think about the consequences for other people.

“I’ve seen people say, ‘Well it’s only me working on these circuits’, but what about the person who’s going to get a phone call from the police to tell them that you won’t be coming home? What about your spouse or parents having to organise your funeral and visit your grave? There can be an attitude of, ‘It’s never going to get me’ but it only needs to get you once and you won’t come back from it. It’s heart-breaking that people are still losing their lives. All of these deaths are preventable.”

Part of the problem comes from people falling into bad habits, then passing them on to apprentices and colleagues. Louise explained: “When there’s not positive reinforcement of the correct way to do it and why, then people can slide into bad habits.

“In the domestic game, people often work alone. But just because you don’t have someone looking over your shoulder, it doesn’t mean you can cut corners. We need to shift the mindset.”


Michael’s story

Experienced electrician Michael Adamson was just 26 when he died in a preventable electrical incident.

He cut a cable marked ‘Not in use’ which hadn’t been safely isolated and was instead terminated into a distribution board.

His employers had issued a method statement that said equipment “should be isolated and secured by means of a padlock” before work. However, devices for lock-off/tag-out weren’t provided and instead, the on-site practice was to use insulating tape.

Michael’s employer was later found guilty of health and safety offences and fined £300,000.

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Training focus

One of the ways Louise believes the problem could be tackled is by taking a more proactive approach to training and putting more of a focus on preventing incidents from happening.

“I would like mandatory refresher training required and a more regular reminder would be useful,” she said.

“People tend to go on training courses in response to an incident – a near miss or serious occurrence – and you don’t want that to be the case. You want it to be a proactive thing so these types of incident don’t ever happen.”

The events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have introduced new workplace risks that mean health and safety is more important than ever.

Some workers will be returning after a long spell on furlough and it can take time to get back to their best. With the increased focus on COVID, it can also be easy to forget about other dangers.

Louise, a trustee of Scottish Hazards, is also aware of the toll the pandemic has taken on people’s mental wellbeing and that many are preoccupied with issues relating to COVID. With so many things on their mind, it can be difficult to focus fully on their job.

She said: “A proper reinduction is important, running back over the hazards that people face. It’s particularly important for apprentices who haven’t been at college for a while to make sure they’re being appropriately supervised.

“I’ve heard a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest people are forgetting about the other hazards of the work because of COVID. It’s not about blaming workers, you have to think about whether people have been properly reinducted.”

Spreading the message

As the new year starts, Louise’s thoughts are already on how to continue the campaign to make workplaces safer and reduce the number of preventable accidents.

She said: “At Scottish Hazards, we’ve put together our manifesto calls for the Scottish Parliament elections next year, including a call about the regulation of electricians. I’m also going to see what more can be done about regular safe isolation refresher training.

“It’s about getting people to do it as a habit, like putting on your seatbelt when you get in a car. You do it every time so that you don’t miss it that crucial time when you should have done it.”

It may have been 15 years since Louise’s family lost Michael, but their grief is still with them every day.

She said: “At Christmas this year there will be so many people who are missing from the table because of COVID and because they can’t come together as a family. But that’s what it’s like for us every year. It’s not just Michael who’s missing, he would have been married by now and might have had children. They’re all missing from the table.”


What is safe isolation?

Safe isolation is a life-saving procedure that makes sure electrical circuits and equipment are safe before you start to work.

Most electrical incidents happen because people work on or near equipment that’s either thought to be dead but it is actually live or is known to be live but the right precautions haven’t been taken.

That’s why it’s vital to make sure there’s a system in place before any work starts on an electrical installation to establish that it is isolated and proved to be ‘dead’, i.e. has no electrical current running through it.


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