Phil Buckle, Chief Executive of Electrical Safety First, explains how the Grenfell Tower tragedy is a wake-up call for electrical safety checks and building regulations
While the media has noted various concerns around the remit of its Public Inquiry, there’s no doubt the Grenfell Tower fire will have a significant impact on social housing – and a range of safety issues that this tragic event has dramatically highlighted.
Although many questions around Grenfell remain unanswered, we do know that, while the fire spread rapidly because of the block’s external cladding, the source of ignition was a faulty fridge-freezer on the fourth floor.
Electricity is so much a part of modern life, it’s easy to forget how dangerous it can be. But last year, almost two thousand fires – 1,878, to be exact – were caused by white goods (domestic electricals, such as fridge-freezers, washing machines and dishwashers).
And while it is important to note that the item that instigated the Grenfell fire had not been subject to a product recall or safety notice, over the past six years, data from England’s fire and rescue services shows an average of four fires a week being caused by faulty fridge-freezers alone.
Since our inception, Electrical Safety First has been passionately committed to improving electrical safety in the home. In addition to our major consumer education and media campaigns, we also engage with key stakeholders and government to influence relevant policy developments.
We have, for example, successfully lobbied for improved electrical safety checks in the private rented sector. Today, legislation requiring private landlords to ensure regular electrical safety checks in their properties is now operating in Scotland, with Wales and Northern Ireland set to follow suit. In England, we await ministerial sign-off for a similar requirement to be incorporated into the Housing Act, which gained Royal Assent last May.
So we are hopeful that government will respond to our call for housing associations and local authorities to be required to provide free electrical safety checks – for both fixed electrical installations and electrical appliances – for all tenants. Initially, this would only cover tower blocks, as a range of issues (not least population density), make this form of housing a priority for electrical safety.
Current government policy states that there is only an “expectation” on social landlords to keep electrical installations safe. On this basis, electrical installations and appliances contained within the sector could go unchecked for many years and remain dangerous until action is taken. So we are also calling for such checks to eventually encompass all social housing and we would like to see social landlords compile a register of white goods located in their tower blocks – regardless of tenure.
In the meantime, we have launched a microsite to advise people on white goods safety, including how to register an appliance and find out if an electrical item they own has been recalled.
In recent years, there has been a tsunami of media coverage around a range of unsafe electrical products, from exploding chargers to washing machines.
With the limited success of recalls (only an estimated 10%-20% actually manage to engage with the end consumer) and the fact that domestic electrical fires are increasing – most notably illustrated by Grenfell – we consider it essential that the product safety system be improved.
Many people were disappointed by the government’s muted response to Lynn Faulds Woods’ independent review of the UK’s System for the Recall of Unsafe Products. However, a Working Group on Product Recalls and Safety, which we are members of, was set up by the government. The group finally issued its report in July and we were pleased that it incorporated a number of recommendations we considered essential to improve recall rates, enhance consumer safety and ensure sustainable business.
The report’s recommendations included the development of a recall code of practice, a call for research into consumer behaviour, the promotion of product registration and greater coordination of product recalls and enforcement. In response to the report, the government has already launched a new website, Product Recall, to act as a centralised resource for consumer information.
But it will need political will to ensure that all of the report’s recommendations are put into practice and to provide the support required for the effective enforcement of product safety. Given the fact that there have been 112 recalls of electrical products since July 2015, it is clear that product safety is an issue that can no longer be ignored. If it is, more lives will be put at risk. Be assured that we are working on it.
Electrical Safety First hosts an annual Product Safety Conference, which offers updates on the changing legislative landscape impacting on electrical safety. The next conference will be held on Thursday 23 November 2017 at Church House, Dean’s Yard, Westminster, London SW1P 3NZ. For further information, please contact Neelam Sheemar at: Neelam.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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