Getting to grips with electrical fire risks

By Jussi Lehtonen, If

Managing electrical fire risks can be a major challenge for clients who own and operate electrical equipment and installations. In the worst case, failing to understand the risks or neglecting to carefully address electrical risks can lead to situations where learning by trial and error becomes too commonplace. To prevent losses, it is vital to understand electrical fires and mitigate fire risks effectively.

Lack of data

In order to understand electrical fire risks, one key factor is that there are very few comparable data collection and operating models for collecting statistics on electrical fire risks. Further to this, a major challenge is also posed by the fact that smaller electrical fires and serious near misses are not always investigated and reported to the necessary extent.

Often, it is very difficult to compare different statistics related to the topic of electrical fires. The downside to a lack of consistent and reliable data is that this can lead to a distorted sense of safety regarding risks associated with electricity.

Naturally, having consistent and comparable statistics would clearly benefit both the owners and operators of electrical installations, as well as persons maintaining these installations, to better manage their day-to-day challenges.

Common issues

Issues with electrical safety and related problems often result from a lack of planning and failures in the flow of information between different parties involved. It is quite common that the electrical equipment is owned, operated and maintained by separate parties. Different responsibilities are broken down into smaller tasks, then divided for example between several teams. These teams may be working in shifts while electrical contracting, maintenance teams and purchasing teams all own some task or responsibility relating to the same equipment. Overall, this leads to the fragmentation of overall responsibility.

For example, the electrical compatibility between technologies designed over different decades should always be taken into account as part of the overall planning, from purchasing to upgrading and so on. Sometimes, this can be a level of detail which is beyond the understanding of the purchasing organisation. In the worst-case scenario, lack of proper oversight on such matters can constitute a high risk for incident or accident with respect to the electrical installation.

In addition, frequent changes in responsibilities within organisations (subcontractors and own activities) can add further challenges. The risk of an electrical fire is further increased in cases where processes and quality maintenance have not been adequately documented or described. When detailed information about how certain electrical equipment has been maintained is known by a single person or contractor, detailed knowledge-sharing becomes critical to a successful transition from one partner to another.

Understanding safety risks

Although clients generally have a good overview of potential electrical fire risks, there are some details which are commonly overlooked. For example, equipment failure situations are commonly omitted or considered from a fire risk perspective.

The understanding of electrical equipment failures by a layman and often also by an electrical engineer or other professional, is limited to general awareness on the life and health risks or of facts relating to the equipment itself, e.g. in relation to troubleshooting the technical malfunction.

For example, experience is vital in recognising the basic conditions that exist prior to a fire igniting, this requires extensive practical knowledge and expertise. Working with a capable and reliable partner will help owners, operators and maintenance teams appropriately interpret the risks associated with their electrical equipment and installations, as well as in the immediate surroundings of these with regards to nearby combustible materials, for example.

Enabling business continuity

Looking at concrete examples, sudden changes in temperature and risks posed on the environment in which the electrical equipment is installed, such as the splashing of molten metal, can be associated with equipment failures but are often perceived as unrealistic threats.

Proper maintenance is vital to protection against electrical fires. The electrical installations and equipment must be regularly maintained and kept clean, properly encased and used correctly. These steps would help in the prevention of electrical fires, as well as help to ensure that when fire breaks out, the damage is limited to smaller areas. As a further benefit, the equipment will also work as intended by the manufacturer in the event of failure or fault situation.

With the demand for electricity on the rise, it is important to keep abreast of standards and regulations. It is important to replace obsolete, under-sized installations and equipment that do not meet current demand. Aging installations and equipment pose a serious risk of electrical fires.

Not all repaired faults are documented. Therefore, even repeated near misses may only be known by the contractor or even a single electrician.

Surveys prevent losses

In electrical risk surveying, a major role is played by identifying the operating culture. How, and by whom, is the equipment operated and maintained? What is level of skill and experience of the contractor and other persons working with the installation and equipment? These are important questions that will help in assessing the potential risks that exist on-site.

An electrical fire risk survey consists of multiple stages, including careful preparation before visiting the location, informing the parties involved about their responsibilities and agreeing on the roles of persons participating in the survey, occupational safety during the survey, possible preparation of equipment e.g. by starting process equipment or lighting and ventilation equipment, for example.

Conducting the actual survey, which can last from a few hours to several days, can lead to precisely defined training sessions with the client’s maintenance organisations. Of course, sometimes surveys will also find that no follow-up actions are required. Each survey is unique and can have a different outcome, depending on the results of the study.

4,000 survey visits

It is understandable that not all electrical engineering professionals have been involved with electrical fires. Therefore, they may not be able to identify electrical fire risks in their day-to-day activities. Continued and open dialogue on this topic is therefore key to safer operations, a survey visit is often beneficial to all parties. It is not uncommon that If’s Safety Academy experts will uncover faults in electrical equipment or installations that are not only hazardous but potentially about to fail with serious consequences.

When it comes to increasing our client’s understanding of electrical fire risks we work by their side, and in close cooperation, to manage risks, share knowledge and support their individual requirements. Thanks to dedicated work on this important topic, we now have experience of some 4,000 electric fire safety inspections, with more than 40,000 operational switchboards reviewed.

An essential part of the survey process is the active involvement of the client or the electrical subcontractor in the survey. It has been our experience that this way of working brings multiple benefits from knowledge-sharing to smoother execution of the survey.

Working together, we gain a solid understanding of existing maintenance practices, operational issues and more. This helps everyone involved to develop solutions for identified issues that will help to ensure that the equipment is safe and secure, providing reliable operation into the future.

In Finland, If’s Safety Academy conducts electrical fire risk surveys to prevent fires caused by electricity, and to ensure business continuity for clients.

If’s Safety Academy in Finland

An electrical fire is the most significant preventable factor that can disrupt a company’s business. In the spring of 2013, If Insurance launched a major electrical safety study to investigate the acute fire risks of electrical systems across 1,000 Finnish small and medium-sized companies. This study focused on industries where the use of electricity is critical to the continuity of operations. If’s Safety Academy was established as part of this study and the work continues to this day with encouraging results.

If’s Safety Academy provides support to Commercial customers in Finland in relation to electrical risks, including training events and risk management survey services to ensure electrical fire safety and increase knowledge-sharing on electrical fire risks.

Our aim has always been to help build a culture that is focused on active loss prevention. From the very beginning, we have worked towards establishing a systematic and consistent operating model that ensures both the quality of electrical equipment inspections as well as the quality of the data collected. Focusing on quality and taking a critical approach to what we do has been our speciality.

Article published in Risk Consulting 2/2021