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How PCBUs/owners of electrical equipment can enhance safety of contracted electricians

A lot of people think they don’t have much influence over how work is done when tradies are contracted to work at their properties or businesses.

Sure – you probably won’t be telling a chippie how to cut a mitre, or anyone else how to do their jobs. And anyway – it might not foster a good working relationship.

But businesses do have duties under Work Health and Safety (WHS) legislation, even when trade contractors have control of all or part of their clients’ premises. Persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) will sometimes assume beyond making sure tradies get decent access and are left alone to do their jobs, there is some line in the sand shielding them from responsibility if something goes wrong.

Under WHS legislation, including the Electrical Safety Act 2002 (ES Act), that assumption might only go so far.

First, even if independent contractors are at work at a PCBU’s premises, their employees and workers are also the PCBU’s workers. If a person carries out work in any capacity for a PCBU, even if they are an ‘employee of a contactor or a subcontractor’, they are workers to whom the PCBU will hold duties.1

Under the ES Act, while electricians are working at the PCBU’s premises, the PCBU still has a primary duty of care2, and remains a person in control of electrical equipment.3

The Electrical Safety Regulation 2013 (ES Reg), gives PCBUs skin in the game with an active duty to ensure electrical equipment that has been de-energised to allow electrical work to be carried out is not inadvertently re-energised while the work is carried out.4

That means PCBUs’ co-operation with and support for electrical contractors is a part of the landscape irrespective of what might be in any contract.

One of the big points that electricians deal with is seeking the owner/PCBU’s permission to isolate a switchboard and are told ‘no’. There might be good reasons related to medical equipment or facilities where it is necessary in the interests of health and safety that electrical work is carried out while equipment is energised.

Aside from the very strict rules about electricians working live,5 not isolating a switchboard can mean electricians will have to work in proximity to live parts.

From the PCBU/client’s view, it might be simply about continuing with the widget making, despite the electricians working.

The best result is ensuring proper discussion with electrical contractors as to timing of work, or integrating the electrical work with the PCBU’s activities so isolation can occur without or minimal interruption.

If the answer is still ‘no’, then the PCBU will have to understand the electricians will be working with higher exposure to electrical risks through working near live electrical parts.

Beyond that, the electrical work will likely come at a higher monetary cost. But when talking about workers’ safety, cost sits well down on the priority table.

If it is reasonably practicable, a PCBU should ensure that electrical contractors are able to isolate or de-energise the main switchboard. In terms of the hierarchy of electrical controls, that is the best and most simple step to achieve electrical safety.

If a PCBU says ‘no’ they better have very good reasons to show it is not reasonably practicable to isolate.

Without effective isolation, damage to equipment and property could occur, or far worse, a serious electrical incident could result in a person being killed or receiving an electric shock or arc flash burns.

If there is no good reason, electrical contractors can inform their PCBU/client, that even with the best systems in place, there is a greater exposure to electrical risk simply because far worse consequences can flow from even the most minor error or accident.

So, if safety suggests the work be done with a switchboard isolated, and the owner/PCBU says no, electrical contractors can tell their client they also have a duty to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, that workers are safe, including the contractor’s employed electricians. In not permitting isolation of a switchboard (for example), the PCBU/owner could be contributing to contracted electricians being exposed to greater electrical risk.

1 See s22 ES Act
2 See s30 ES Act
3 See s38 ES Act
4 See s16 ES Reg
5 See Part 3, Div 1 ES Reg