Safe Isolation — when, where and why did it all start and how do law makers and industry regard this today? John Saysell, head of training at MCP Consulting and Training, explains
The safe isolation (ten-point) procedure was formally introduced initially by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) as part of their AM2 Test (Achievement Measurement Test 2) back in 1985. It was (and still is) referred as the 'Part C – Safe Isolation of Supplies' of this assessment and formed one part of a five part assessment process.
During its life, the test was adopted under a CITB licence by the Joint Industry Board (JIB) for the Electrical Industry and latterly, now being administered by National Electrotechnical Training (NET). This test now forms the final unit of the Electrotechnical Apprenticeship.
In order to ensure the integrity of the test it was delivered and administered without prejudice to learners, the CITB needed an independent network of examiners to carry out the AM2 Test. This was provided (under CITB Licence) by the national network of Skillcentres (Skills Training Agency — STA) which was formally a training agency under the remit of the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE). The Skillcentres’ Electrical Instructors were trained by the CITB to be AM2 Examiners who would invigilate the tests and carry out any administration related to candidate’s performance. At the time of its introduction (1986), there were 14 AM2 Test Centre located in major towns and Cities throughout the UK.
With the Skillcentres’ privatisation in 1990 and the subsequent demise of its replacement, Astra Training Services in 1994, the licensing of independent organisations to operate the AM2 Test was developed. By making an application to the newly licensed (by CITB) JIB for licenses, any organisation could now apply to be a test centre. NET took over the administration of the AM2 in 1997 which has continued to expand to today with its test centres now operating from 37 in England, two in Wales and one in N Ireland.
It’s hard to believe that in today’s world of safety consciousness nothing previously existed to provide for safe isolation before the advent of the AM2, other than that which was handed down from 'old sage' electricians to apprentices. There was no formal means of proving electrical supplies were correctly and safely isolated. As explained above, it was the inclusion of this as a final assessment of the Construction Industry Electrical Apprenticeship which measured whether safe working procedures could be independently demonstrated which ultimately aimed at providing a safer working environment within the electrical sector.
Legislation — GS38 et al
The HSE publication GS38 'Test Equipment for use by Electricians' was first published in 1995 and made reference to 'Voltage Test Indicators' and separate 'Proving Units' which were first used within the AM2 Test battery. An example of “artificial” assessment procedures informing real world practices. Just as a reminder, safe isolation procedures are:
- Identify your point of isolation
- Inform the customer that you will be isolating the supply
- Operate the isolator and lock off and fit warning notice
- Select approved test equipment and prove that it is working
- Test on outgoing side of isolation point all combinations: 1. L1 and L2, 2. L1 and L3, 3. L1 and Neutral, 4. L1 and Earth, 5. L2 and L3, 6. L2 and Neutral, 7. L2 and Earth, 8. L3 and Neutral, 9. L3 and Earth, 10. Neutral and Earth
- Re-prove your test equipment is still working
Today's situation in industry
Safe isolation is something which is either known about and not followed, or not known about and woefully lacking in the understanding and knowledge of persons who may be working in industry and carrying out electrically related tasks. As mentioned above, electrical personnel in the construction industry have, over the last 30 years, become very familiar with the AM2 test and therefore tend to follow this guidance. This attitude to safety may be almost considered by construction personnel as automatic and a 'way of life' as these individuals have been brought up with safety being in sharp focus as construction sites tend to be comparatively dangerous places to work.
Conversely, there is evidence that the manufacturing industry may be falling behind the construction industry as far as safe isolation is concerned. Practices within the workplace may be considered as "getting in the way of production” and attitudes to safety may be less focused. In a recent assessment exercise carried out by my company in a production facility of a multi-national company, some very concerning failures of safe isolation procedures were observed.
Of the personnel who were assessed as to who would normally be carrying out electrically-related working activities (ranging from personnel with basic electrical skills to fully qualified technicians), the isolations carried out by over 90 per cent of the candidates would be considered as unsafe when compared to the HSE guidelines and industry standards; a very worrying development regarding the observation of electrical safety in the workplace, especially when these practices have been in existence for 30 years!