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Tips on avoiding electrical danger in the home

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Electrical Safety First’s report, “A shock to the System”, found that more than a million people aged over 75 live in homes which fail the UK Government’s Decent Home Standard – with electrical safety a particular concern. Here, Phil Buckle, Director General of the charity, gives the details and offers some tips to help you protect parents and other elderly relatives from electrical danger in the home.

Did you know that more than 350,000 people are seriously injured by electricity each year? Or that it causes almost half of all domestic fires in Great Britain, with older adults more likely to be affected? And someone over 60 is ten times more likely to die in a fire than someone aged 17 to 24.

Electrical Safety First’s report, “A Shock to the System: Electrical Safety in an Ageing Society”, found that over a million people aged over 75 currently live in homes that fail to meet the Decent Home Standard. And almost two thirds of households comprising couples over 60 live in accommodation which fails basic electrical safety standards. Inevitably, this puts vulnerable individuals at risk - with those in low-income households, or rural areas, most affected – and produces housing unfit for people to age safely in their own home.

Electrical checks can be forgotten over time

As lifespan increases, people tend to remain in properties for longer. This often means regular home safety checks are forgotten and electrical installations and appliances tend to be older. We discovered, for example, that 42% of householders who have lived in their property for 30 or more years are in “non-decent” accommodation.

The future will also bring an increasing number of people over 60 renting privately. But with over a third of all privately rented homes failing to meet the Decent Homes Standard and regulations around electrical safety in the sector piecemeal and ambiguous, safety concerns are increasing.

What can you do to help keep your relatives safe?

Although we are lobbying Government to improve electrical safety – and have already had some success in Scotland – there are some steps you can take now to protect your loved ones.

We recommend that you get the electrics in a property 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.

There are also some basic visual checks you can also undertake.

How old is the fusebox? See if there is an up-do-date fusebox including 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 is a mix of different fuses. If you are not sure if an RCD is incorporated, look for a “Test” or T button. If you have a working RCD, pressing this will switch off the power. 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.

Still using round pin? 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.

Visit the appliances. Check the cables on all appliances to make sure they are secure and in good condition. Try and ensure that they don’t trail across the floor, as this can be a trip hazard.

Keep the kitchen clear. 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.

Avoid mixing water and power. 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.

Protect outside sockets. If your older 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.

Re-think heaters. 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 ensure portable heaters are placed 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.

Stay safe in bed. 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 ten years.

Avoid overloading sockets. Overloading sockets can lead to fires. We recommend using a fused multi-way bar extension rather than a block adaptor and never “daisy chain” extension leads together. We have also developed an online tool to help you avoid overloading sockets, which can lead to fire.

Electrical Safety First has produced a guide to electrical safety for older people and their relatives. 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. For more information, visit our website.

If you found this article useful you may like some of our other articles about living well at home

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