Electrical safety is particularly important for older or vulnerable people, or those with physical or mental impairments, because it is usually an invisible threat. But here Angela Murphy from leading UK charity, Electrical Safety First, offers some tips to help you protect parents and other elderly relatives from electrical danger in the home.
Did you know that electricity causes over 350,000 serious injuries and almost half of all domestic fires in Great Britain, with older adults more likely to be affected? If you are over 60, you are ten times more likely to die in a fire than someone aged 17 to 24.
Electrical Safety First undertakes a range of research, including analysing how electrical risk impacts on older people. This is particularly important because, as our lifespan increases, we tend to remain in properties for longer. And it often means regular home safety checks are forgotten and electrical installations and appliances tend to be older.
Our research report, A Shock to the System: Electrical Safety in an Ageing Society, found that over a million people aged 75+ currently live in ‘non-decent homes’. And almost two thirds of households comprised of couples over 60 live in accommodation which fails basic electrical safety standards. Inevitably, this puts older and vulnerable individuals at risk and produces housing unfit for people to age safely in their own home.
Electrical Safety First recommends that the electrics in a property are fully tested at least every ten years (or five years if it is rented accommodation) by using a registered electrician. To find one in your area, just click here. In the meantime, below are some basic visual checks that can help keep loved ones electrically safe in their homes.
- Check that there is an up-do-date fusebox. This should include an RCD (residual current device) which cuts the current if there is a fault, to protect against electric shock. A modern fusebox will not have a wooden back, cast iron switches, or look as if it has a mix of different fuses. If there isn’t an RCD, you can buy a plug-in one, although getting a new fusebox which incorporates an RCD is definitely safer.
- If the house has round pin sockets, braided flex hanging from ceiling lights, or sockets mounted on skirting boards, the electrics could be over 50 years old! Burn marks or cracking on plugs, sockets and light fittings, are also a danger sign.
- Check the cables on all appliances to make sure they are secure and in good condition. Try not to trail them across the floor, as this can be a trip hazard.
- Many people don’t realise that overloading sockets can lead to fire – or that different types of electrical products use different amounts of power. For example, plugging just a toaster and a kettle into an extension lead can overload it, as can making a daisy chain of extension leads. We recommend using a fused multi-way bar extension rather than a block adaptor and never ‘daisy chain’ or link extension leads together. We have also developed an online tool to help you avoid overloading sockets.
- The kitchen may be the heart of a home but it is also where half of all house fires start. Many arise through a build-up of fat on electric cookers, air vents being blocked by objects left on top of microwaves, or by dirt, dust and crumbs, blocking ventilation and causing products to overheat.
- Electrical safety is particularly important in bathrooms, so they usually won’t contain a mains socket. If there is, it should be at least three metres away from a shower or bath and a pull cord light switch, rather than a wall mounted one, is preferable.
- If your elderly relative is an avid gardener, ensure sockets used for electrical equipment used outside have RCD protection. Cutting through a lawnmower cable, for example, can kill but an RCD can prevent a dangerous or fatal electric shock. And always make sure that any lights or other electrical equipment are suitable for outdoor use.
- Many older people are worried about winter heating bills. Portable heaters and electric blankets are popular solutions but they have caused a number of house fires, mainly through misuse. Always place portable heaters on a level surface, away from inflammable materials. And don’t plug it into an extension lead, which can be overloaded and cause a fire.
- Ensure electric blankets are undamaged before use, check the manufacturer’s instructions and don’t use with a hot water bottle, or wet hands or feet. We suggest replacing electric blankets at least every 10 years.
- Make sure things are stored safely. There is real fire risk if the cupboard where the electrical equipment (fuse box, meter etc.) are located, to keep flammable items such as coats or cleaning materials. Often, this is the cupboard under the stairs, where storing items is particularly risky, as a fire here can cut off an escape route.
- Remember recalls and registration. Product recalls are undertaken by a manufacturer or retailer when there is a problem with an item. (Between 2011-2014, 288 different electrical products were recalled, including seven types of fridges and four washing machines). By registering an electrical appliance, manufacturers and retailers can easily trace and contact consumers to recall a dangerous, substandard, or faulty, item. To see if an electrical appliance has been recalled, visit: org.uk/recall. To register an appliance, visit: www.registermyappliance.org.uk/
- Beware also those dangerous products that won’t be recalled because they are fake. There has been a huge increase in counterfeit and sub-standard electrical goods entering the country – particularly cheap, fake phone chargers, which have caused a number of fires. We recommend that people always buy from reputable retailers.
Electrical Safety First has produced a guide to electrical safety for older people and their relatives, which you can find here.
We have also produced an app for mobile phones which will allow you to undertake a quick, visual check of the electrics in a home and you can download our full report A Shock to the System, here. For more information.