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Brett Smyth, general manager at Ideal Industries EMEA, a specialist in electrical tools, accessories and equipment, discusses the lack of electrical content in heating engineer training and asks whether a lack of knowledge about safe isolation best practice could be putting professionals at risk.
Installing gas boilers is an inherently hazardous occupation, which is why safety is prioritised throughout a heating engineer’s career. Safety best practice is embedded in the significant amount of academic study and practical training required to qualify as a heating engineer. Then, once qualified, the mandatory regular renewals imposed to ensure compliance and up-to-date skills also ensure that good safety practices are understood and observed.
Those mandatory training and renewal requirements are there with good reason. Thorough training underpins the skills that will ensure an installation is neat and tidy and delivers maximum performance and efficiency, while safeguarding against leaks, hazards or damage to the property. The focus on safety as part of heating engineer training is not just about ensuring the finished installation is safe for the end-user either; equally important is the need to ensure safe working practices while on site. Site safety best practice protects both the heating engineer and others in the property, which often includes the homeowner.
Despite this thoroughness of training, safety and compliance, however, there is a significant gap in the mandatory training requirements for heating engineers. Gas Safety and chimneys are, quite rightly, at the heart of safety but there is no electrical element to ACS training and qualification. And yet electrical connections for gas heating systems generally make up 10-15% of installation work on site and electricity is also a substantial safety hazard if it is not handled with expertise and safety best practice.
It’s a serious problem. Every year in the UK, there are almost 400 fatalities or injuries from electrical distribution caused by contact with live currents. Often this is due to electrical networks being inadvertently switched to live while someone is still working on them. The way to prevent this is to isolate the electrical supply safely, locking out and tagging the isolation to prevent the network from being inadvertently switched to live.
This is a practice that’s just as important for heating engineers carrying out electrical connections on a heating system as it is for electricians working on electrical networks all day long. As skilled tradespeople, heating engineers often pick up the skills required to complete the electrical connections for heating systems early in their career. The two trades are relatable and skills are passed from one colleague to another, enabling heating engineers to gain competency and confidence in completing electrical connections without any formal training. The problem with this approach, however, is that without training, the safety hazards associated with electrical connections are often overlooked, so few heating engineers are as diligent as they should be about making isolations safe.
Jason Andrews, a heating engineer who always uses an Ideal Industries Safe Isolation Kit when completing electrical work on installations, explains: “As heating engineers, it’s not that we don’t know about the dangers of a live electrical supply; it’s just that we’ve never been taught electrical safety best practice. You might assume that you’re protecting yourself and others in the property by isolating the supply, but unless it’s locked out, tagged and tested, it’s not secure. Missing those small safety steps means exposure to unnecessary risk.”
With so many heating engineers routinely carrying out electrical connections for gas boiler installations, it’s difficult to understand why there is such a lack of electrical training for the profession. Not only is there no electrical element to ACS qualification, but there are no stand-alone electrical courses available for heating engineers either. As a result, the choice is between investing time and money in a full electrical course and qualification, or relying on experience and general safety awareness to fill the gap.
It would appear that the view of awarding bodies for both electrical and heating engineering qualifications is that the electrical elements of a heating installation should be done by a qualified electrician. Training is designed to focus on core competencies for the heating engineer and ringfence responsibility for electrical work for electricians. That’s laudable in theory, but in the real world of practicality, time constraints and cost, it doesn’t usually stack up.
The electrical connections for gas heating systems makes up enough of the job to pose a potential safety hazard for anyone unfamiliar with electrics, but it’s not sufficient work to be an attractive job for a busy electrician. It’s often impractical to bring in an electrician and involves an additional cost to the customer, or even delays in completing the project.
While there is no quick fix to addressing the lack of electrical training for heating engineers, the good news is that safe isolation best practice is fast and easy to implement. It involves testing for mains voltage, locking out the isolation so that it cannot be inadvertently switched to live and tagging it so that it’s clearly labelled. Ideal Industries’ Safe Isolation Kits have everything needed to carry out this simple process, and using these tools on site could save lives.
Jason Andrews continues: “I think safe isolation kits are a must for any heating engineer. Homeowners often return to their property and switch the electrical supply to live at the consumer unit, potentially putting their heating engineer in danger without realising it. That’s why I decided to invest in a safe isolation kit for myself and my employee; it could literally save our lives. I’d advise any heating engineer that does their own electrical connections to do the same.”