Harnessing the power of electricity in the design and fit out of offices

Legend has it that the American politician, inventor, writer and polymath Benjamin Franklin flew a kite in a storm in 1752 as part of his attempt to understand how to harness the power of electricity. This combination of risk, necessity and invention has marked our relationship with electricity ever since. We are now completely dependent on the reliable and uninterrupted provision of electricity to such an extent that the economy would falter very quickly if there was any significant disruption in its supply. This is particularly true when it comes to workplace design, fit-out and management.

Inevitably this need for power brings with it some other challenges, not least in terms of health and safety. The problem is compounded by the fact that when things go wrong with electricity, they do so in a big and sometimes fatal way. According to the Health and Safety Executive, each year there are around 1,000 reported accidents involving electricity and around 25 deaths according to figures released at the end of 2013. Many more are thought to go unreported because people are still likely to put minor shocks down as ‘just one of those things’.

However, people are far more likely to be killed or hurt when they are involved in an electric incident than in most other types of workplace accident. A voltage as low as 50 volts in the right circumstances can cause a current to flow that can block the electrical signals between the brain and the muscles which can lead to a failure of heart function, breathing difficulties and muscle spasms.

And yet all too often, the issue of electrical safety seems to be taken lightly, sometimes by those people who work with it for a living. It’s telling that one of the FAQs on the HSE website in this regard is ‘Everyone gets a ‘belt’ from electricity every now and then, don’t they?’ Well maybe, but they shouldn’t and they certainly shouldn’t adopt such a laissez-faire attitude to the subject. Getting a belt from electricity is no more an occupational hazard than a fall from a height and in most cases it is entirely avoidable.

Inevitably, the source of incidents is extremely varied. However, one area that is particularly overlooked is the wiring and servicing of workstations. This is surprising in some ways given that it is well legislated for by, amongst other things, BS6396. Yet, we’ve all seen the way in which people treat the servicing of their workstations in the same way they treat electrical appliances in their homes, with tangled bundles of wires lurking under desks, often loosely positioned and providing a huge trip hazard. When there is insufficient provision of outlets, the result is almost inevitably adaptors and extension  leads which may or may not be the best solution. We’ve seen the occasional coffee maker, kettle or even toaster balanced precariously close to the back edge of a desk or return unit. And we’ve seen cable management channels poorly installed or left on the floor surrounded by the wires they should be channelling.

With so many aspects of health and safety legislation impacting the workplace it isn’t surprising when some of the less obvious considerations are totally overlooked by employers. This isn’t through wilful neglect, more a lack of knowledge of their existence. Legislation exists to provide guidance on the safe installation of electrical systems in the office, specifically in the channelling of electricity through desks and screens.

The BS6396 standard in particular has suffered a degree of underexposure, and many employers remain unaware that should an incident occur in the workplace which requires investigation they risk prosecution if their cable management does not comply with legislation. Facilities managers are often responsible, if not accountable for ensuring their company’s workstations are safe for the employees using them.

BS6396 is a standard relating to the installation of electrical systems as a whole and is not a specific electrical accessory standard. It does not apply to fixed installations. However, while specific products may comply with the relevant clauses of the full standard, full compliance with the standard itself requires correct installation of the system and proper construction of the furniture. So it ain’t just what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

The demands of BS6396 are pretty straightforward. They include the following:

  • A maximum of six sockets are allowed per power supply with total ratings of appliances not exceeding 13 Amps – fine for most office equipment (see average ratings below) but no good for those wanting to plug in kettles, fan heaters, vacuum cleaners and so on.
  • Each socket needs to be individually fused
  • Equipment with ratings in excess of 5Amps must have a dedicated power feed
  • Extraneous metal work needs to be earthed
  • The exposed length of power supply cable should be no more than 2 metres from the desk clamp.
  • Socket outlets should be located so as to be easily accessible and minimize the risk of physical injury and to minimise the risk of electrical hazard from liquid spillage.

As an indication of power usage typical ratings include:

  • CPU for a desk top computer – 2.00 Amps
  • CRT monitor – 1.50 Amps
  • Laptop – 0.60 Amps
  • Mobile phone charger – 0.05 Amps
  • Desk lamp (60w) – 0.25 Amps

The standard also covers the segregation of cables so it’s important to consider when cables run together in parallel, mains electricity supply cables need to be either separated from all other cables or insulated for the highest voltage present. This is typically achieved by providing a 50mm separation between or a cable management system. With today’s workstations it is common for separate items of furniture to be electrically interconnected, if this is the case the furniture pieces need to be fastened together. In essence what this means is that if you install or reconfigure any desks around your office space you are obliged to test the installation for compliance.

It’s right that we should consider health and safety but let’s not forget the aesthetical consideration as well. Whilst architects sometimes make it hard to use a building’s services effectively, visible and messy wires are unsightly. An interesting and pertinent by-product of ensuring that the appropriate cable management is in place is that the workplace looks tidier and is easier to manage.

Image: Benjamin Franklin’s Kite Experiment by Benjamin West