Safety standards – do your electrical goods comply?

Electricity can kill you.

We all know that. Our parents told us that when we were kids and we’ve seen the cartoon – Man sticks his hand in toaster. Man flashes up like an X-ray and you can see his skeleton. Man falls over, looking like a very, very well-barbecued chicken.

That’s not quite how it happens. In reality, electricity doesn’t fry you unless you get an extremely large hit of it. It kills you by interrupting your heart rhythm.

Significantly, any electrical device used on a house wiring circuit can, under certain conditions, transmit a fatal current. And every house or place of work has these devices.

And, on top of that, there is the issue of fire. Electrical fires can be caused by heaters placed in dangerous positions or by the fitting of light bulbs with inappropriate wattages to light fittings.

They can also often caused by faulty electrical outlets and old, outdated appliances. Or they can be started by faults in appliance cords, receptacles and switches.

According to statistics from The Electrical Regulatory Authorities Council (ERAC), there were 67 fatalities between 1999 – 2003 resulting from electrical fault in Australia and New Zealand.

And between 2002 – 2007 in Australian and New Zealand, there were 11,260 fires attributed to electrical equipment faults.

Apart from the human cost, the economic cost of these fires and fatalities is estimated to be $489 million per annum.

Thankfully, the number of deaths by electrocution is trending downwards. During the 2000s, there was an average of 25 deaths recorded in Australia and New Zealand each year. During the 1990s, there were, on average, 49 deaths per year.

Of the 28 fatalities in the period 2009-10, seven involved the electricity supply network. (In most cases, death was due to accidental contact with electricity supply overhead conductors). And 21 deaths involved customer’s applications, appliances, or equipment.

So it is important that electrical equipment and devices are used correctly and meet safety standards.

E-commerce is blurring national boundaries in a lot of ways. It has meant that ‘global sourcing’ is becoming more widespread throughout the electrical industry. This has thrown up the issue of non-compliant products finding their way into Australia.

A survey recently conducted by the National Electrical and Communications Association (NECA) shed light on the extent of the problem.

According to the survey, 75% of electrical contractors questioned said that they had come across non-compliant products being used in Australia.

It is important for such contractors to understand their legal responsibilities and obligations in the area of compliance of electrical goods.

Firstly, the liability for products that are found to be non-compliant to Australian standards falls on the manufacturer or importer or the product. On top of that, if it can be proven that the electrical contractor knew that the product was non-compliant, some of the liability will fall on him/her also.

In the case that an electrical contractor purchases a product from overseas (e.g. on the internet), he/she is considered the importer of that product and is therefore liable for damages that arise from its non-compliance.

It is important to note that the above does not cover the incorrect installation of complaint products. Such liability falls not on the manufacturer or importer, but on the electrical contractor.

The “Does it Comply” campaign                                                                         

The above-mentioned survey by NECA also found that a lack of understanding about how to identify compliant products was also an issue within the electrical industry.

In addition, with 200 of the 300 respondents saying that they would only purchase compliant products, it would seem that most contractors understand the seriousness of the issue and are keen to follow the rules.

In an effort to eliminate non-compliant electrical goods from the local industry, NECA and electrical industry information portal Voltimum recently launched the “Does it Comply" campaign.

The campaign coincides with the ERAC decision to implement the Electrical Equipment Safety System (EESS) where all suppliers of electrical product and some specific high risk electrical equipment will be registered on a national database.

The first stage of the campaign was to launch a website to provide the industry with a one-stop-shop for information on non-compliant products, associated electrical regulations, explain penalties and outline the overall plan on how the electrical industry is working together to eliminate dangerous counterfeits.

NECA’s Chief Executive Officer, James Tinslay, said at the launch “The use of non-compliant products is very dangerous. Over 11,000 house fires and 60 fatalities have been linked to non-compliant products in Australia and New Zealand so it is a very important the entire industry comes together to ensure only products conforming to Australian Standards are manufactured, imported, promoted, sold and ultimately installed.”

The second stage of the campaign was to get contractors in the electrical and communications industry to ‘sign the pledge’.  Contractors do this by watching a webinar on the campaign website and then testing their knowledge with 10 questions.

Those who answer the questions correctly are asked to commit to only use compliant products, report the use of non-compliant products and make various other commitments.

And they receive marketing material which confirms their commitment to safe, compliant electrical goods.

So how can electrical contractors identify safe electrical goods? There are a number of things to keep an eye out for.

With the EESS, contractors will be able to check if a supplier is listed on the ‘Responsible Supplier database on the ERAC website.

Given that the database is still in its early stages of rollout, there are also several common-sense measures to follow.

Firstly, it is sensible to avoid any product that carries no brand and to purchase goods from a known and authorised manufacturer or distributor.

In addition, products with unusual trademarks or which come in packaging with blurred markings should be avoided.

And, maybe the biggest common sense call of all – beware of prices that are ‘too good to be true’ or items that fell off the back of the proverbial truck.

Finally, when purchasing from overseas, contractors need to be aware that standards are not international but differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. They need to do their research to verify that local standards are met by the products they buy.

Within five years, items on sale in Australia will have to carry the Regulatory Compliance Mark (RCM).