In the United Kingdom, we’re lucky enough to have high standards of health and safety in the workplace, but this doesn’t simply come about by accident. A combination of a robust range of legislation, a strong Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and businesses that are invested into this, are what ensures that, for the most part, workers are able to carry out their roles in safety. One facet of workplace health and safety is in ensuring that equipment on the premises is safe to use. While the first thing that comes to mind will clearly be heavy machinery and other potentially dangerous pieces of equipment, more mundane items can also pose an electrical risk, and this is why businesses up and down the country will have small appliances PAT tested. In this article, we’re going to look in detail at the reasons and purposes behind testing, how and when it’s carried out, as well as some of the legal information that surround this test.
Note: PAT stands for portable appliance testing, which means that it is technically a redundancy to call it PAT testing. However, this is by far the most common way of referring to the test; you’ll see it in guidelines, you’ll see companies talk about it and more.
The core function of the PAT is to make sure that small electrical appliances are safe to use. Electric shocks are the main risk to users. Broken and poorly kept wiring can deliver severe injury to a person, and in rare cases, exposure to mains electricity can even result in death. Normally however, electric shocks can result in difficulty in breathing, muscle spasms, and heart beating irregularities. Electrical burns are also a possibility.
It’s not just personal injury that the PAT attempts to prevent however. Exposed wiring and other electrical issues can be a fire risk by creating sparks that set alight common objects such as paper documents. Where electrical equipment is kept or used near flammable objects, such as aerosol paint cans, it’s even more important to ensure the electrical risk is low, as even low voltage appliances and batteries can create a spark that could ignite.
UK law is fairly strict when it comes to health and safety, and this is for good reason. Broadly, it is the responsibility of the employer to look after employees and ensure that they are safe while they’re at work. This is true for customers and visitors that might be on site too. While individuals must bear some of the responsibility for using equipment in a safe and correct way, it’s the employer that must ensure that the equipment is fundamentally safe to use as it is intended.
Specifically in this respect, it is the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 that place a requirement on employers that they should regularly inspect their electrical equipment to ensure that it is of a safe standard. The policing of these regulations, as well as other laws that are also likely to apply in respect of poorly kept electrical equipment, is handled by the HSE.
Failure to adhere to these laws can result in major punishments, including fines and even jail times. Particularly bad cases can mean a criminal charge for those responsible.
It’s for these reasons that many businesses choose to have their appliances regularly tested. What’s very important to note however is that PAT testing is not a legal requirement. Rather, it is an indication that a legal requirement (that of ensuring that equipment is electrically safe to use) has been met. A business can show they’ve maintained safe equipment in any way they like; it does not have to be through a PAT specifically. However, for the avoidance of any doubt, it is far easier for businesses to simply follow the PAT procedure.
Much of PAT testing is in fact using common sense and basic observational skills. The first steps are simply to observe the appliance thoroughly to see if there are any immediately obvious problems. This could include exposed wiring, missing switches, or loose connections. The HSE estimates that more than 90% of problems identified during a PAT test are found at this fairly basic stage, which illustrates how straightforward it is for most businesses to identify hazards they have in their workplaces.
Following this visual inspection will be a series of electrical tests, the combination of which will depend on the appliance being tested.
There are three classes of electrical equipment, which may change the way in which the test is carried out. Many appliances will fall into Class I, and are generally recognisable as having either no statement of classification on them, or a label or wording that states they are Class I. Class II appliances are those with double insulated wiring, and Class III refers to certain low voltage equipment. In addition, microwaves have special requirements.
Generally, PAT testing equipment will come with instructions to help you decide what needs to be tested. Some of the tests include the following:
Many people erroneously believe that PAT testing needs to be carried out once a year. In truth, there are no set rules put in place by the HSE. As previously mentioned, the law states only that equipment should be inspected regularly. However, should it become apparent that an appliance was not inspected regularly and it is the cause of an accident, the employer may be liable.
Despite this, there are general guidelines given by various authorities for how often appliances need to be tested. This varies depending on things like how likely it is that a unit will degrade over time, how much of a risk it might pose, and how often it’s used. In offices and similar workplaces, common equipment such as computers and monitors need only be checked once every four years, but the same equipment might be tested yearly in public places, particularly in schools and other educational establishments. At the other end of the scale, commercial kitchen equipment should be tested far more frequently - potentially every six months.
If you’re ever in doubt as to how frequently something should be inspected, you should consult the HSE or a qualified electrician for advice.
Given the broadness of the legislation, the answer is no - there is no technical requirement for someone carrying out the PAT to be specifically qualified for the process. Anyone with the right tools and the right knowledge can check electrical equipment in accordance with the law - they simply have to be competent. For this reason, online PAT testing courses are popular, as a designated person in the business can be trained without having any other electrical qualifications or training.
Qualifications are available however, such as the 2377–22 City and Guilds qualification, particularly for those looking for a career in PAT testing.
If you’d like to know more about what the PAT involves, or you want to become trained so that you can carry out your own tests, then consider taking the Virtual College course on the subject, which can be found here. There is no qualification at the end of this course, but it will teach you the information you need to know. However, you must always remember to follow the instructions given with PAT testing equipment, both in terms of carrying out the test effectively, and doing it in a safe manner.