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Last edited 02 Feb 2021
How installer competence can help prevent major residential fires
|Mike Smith and Andrew Eldred of the Electrical Contractors' Association (ECA) highlight the continued fire risk due to under-qualified workers in response to this summer’s ‘Raising the Bar’ consultation.|
Close examination of the factors that contributed to the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 has reinforced the importance of competence as a key factor in the safety of electrical and fire safety installations – and ultimately, the safety of those living in the buildings we make.
Everyone knows what happened at Grenfell Tower on the night of June 14, 2017, but it 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 the UK’s reputation for public safety into serious question.
What has emerged in 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 the most vulnerable people in society 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, noting the many sick, confused or frail residents in their care.
In its ‘Raising the Bar’ submission, ECA repeated its view that tradespeople such as electricians, plumbers and builders who are hired to work in high-risk buildings need to have undertaken an appropriate apprenticeship or equivalent competence-based qualification. The work of under-qualified tradespeople 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 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. Yet, 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 underlines the urgency and vital importance of ensuring that everyone who works in and on buildings must be sufficiently competent.
It should be remembered that the discussion is about protecting vulnerable and other people’s lives. It is now time to put a stop to low levels of electrical and fire safety competency. Workers with as little as five weeks’ training are not competent to design and undertake electrical work in residential and other premises.
 A roadmap to competence
- There should be accredited third-party certification of all enterprises undertaking installation work.
- All individuals must have Level 2 or 3 Ofqual-regulated and competence-based qualifications (Level 3 for the electrical sector). ECA unequivocally advocates technical apprenticeships for new entrants.
- The electrotechnical sector should use the Electrotechnical Certification Card Scheme (ECS).
- CPD should ensure workers are up to date with the latest regulations and other developments.
- All installers should have core, relevant knowledge of fire safety in buildings, with standardised and mandatory training.
In the months following the Grenfell fire, former Chair of the Health and Safety Executive Dame Judith Hackitt was tasked with drafting the 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 recommendations to this review, having listened closely to industry’s concerns over fire safety and competence.
 About this article
This article was written by Mike Smith and Andrew Eldred of the Electrical Contractors' Association (ECA). It first appeared in ECA Today magazine, Issue 42, Winter 2019 and titled ‘Could another major residential fire happen again?’ It can be accessed HERE.
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