Protecting the vulnerable: Electrical safety after Grenfell

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ECA’s director of technical Mike Smith and director of employment and skills Andrew Eldred, highlight the continued fire risk due to under-qualified installers in response to this summer’s ‘Raising the Bar’ consultation, which followed the tragic Grenfell Tower fire of 2017. 

Close examination of the factors that contributed to the fire has reinforced the importance of competence as a key factor in the safety of electrical installations – and ultimately, the safety of those living in the buildings we help to create.

Everyone knows what happened at Grenfell Tower on the night of 14 June, 2017, but the story is no less shocking when repeated. In the capital of modern, allegedly safety-conscious Britain, the deadliest residential fire since World War II claimed 72 lives and threw our country’s reputation for public safety into serious question.

Could another fire happen?

What has emerged through the subsequent investigations and reports initiated by Dame Judith Hackitt is that a disturbingly complacent approach to competence has been allowed in some places to hold sway for too long.

Two years since the fire, there remains a danger that some of society’s most vulnerable are being put in harm’s way due to the work of under-qualified installers. Residential and care homes that hire them are especially in jeopardy, given the number of sick and elderly residents under their charge.

In our ‘Raising the Bar’ submission to the Government, we have repeated our view that installers such as electricians, plumbers and builders who are hired to work in higher-risk buildings need to have undertaken an appropriate apprenticeship, or equivalent competence-based qualification. The work of under-qualified installers is more likely to be dangerous, leading to a higher risk of electrocution and fire.

Government statistics show that in 2018/19, 636 fires were attended by emergency services in hospital and healthcare buildings, and 1,168 fires were attended in communal buildings, which includes residential and care homes. Many of these fires are likely to be electrical in origin.

A warning to industry

ECA has warned Government and industry against a counterproductive trend towards short, classroom-based courses, which claim to prepare budding tradespeople for electrical and other installation work. These courses do not provide the technical understanding, or the extended real-life, on-the-job experience needed to ensure safe electrical work.

However, within the electrotechnical industry, many individuals are claiming to be competent electricians despite having trained, in some cases, for only a matter of weeks.

The publication in August 2019 of the ‘Raising the Bar’ recommendations underline the urgency and importance of ensuring that everyone who works in and on buildings must be sufficiently competent.

We should all remember we are talking about protecting people’s lives. To be blunt, it’s time to stop messing around with low levels of electrical and fire safety competence, and in particular it’s high time to say a final goodbye to the so-called ‘five-week wonders’ – wrongly deemed by some as competent to design and install electrical work.

Paths to competence

ECA has mapped a way forward in our response to ‘Raising the Bar’. We and the wider industry need to stop settling for low levels of competence, which put buildings, and hence lives, at risk.

We strongly support all five ‘Raising the Bar’ recommendations concerning the competence of installers:

  • There should be independent third-party certification of all enterprises undertaking installation work.
  • All individual installers must hold a minimum Level 2 or 3 Ofqual-regulated, competence-based qualification (Level 3 being the minimum in the electrotechnical sector).

ECA unequivocally advocates technical apprenticeships for new entrants.

  • The electrotechnical sector as a whole should adopt the Electrotechnical Certification card Scheme (ECS) as proof of the qualifications an individual holds.
  • An open-ended obligation to undertake CPD should ensure all installers remain up-to-date with the latest relevant regulations and other developments. 
  • All installers should have appropriate knowledge of fire safety in buildings, with standardised, mandatory training units.

In the months following the Grenfell fire, former chair of the Health and Safety Executive Dame Judith Hackitt was tasked with undertaking an Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, to address the flaws in the system which allowed the disaster to happen.

ECA and the Fire and Security Association (FSA) made a number of influential representations to the review, having listened closely to industry concerns over competence and fire safety.

Earlier this year, we welcomed the Government’s confirmation that a new regulatory system would come into place, supported by stronger sanctions and enforcement powers. 

With phase two of the Grenfell inquiry report now underway, ECA and the FSA will continue to offer advice and informed opinion wherever possible, to ensure such a tragedy can never happen again.