Refurbishment Works – Electrical Danger


As the new-build construction sector continues to suffer, many contractors rely upon refurbishment work. Individuals and firms are tending to stay put and upgrade or extend their buildings. Unfortunately the smaller value of these works may sometimes lead to working practices that have not been scrutinised as keenly as is required in the Construction and Design Management (CDM) regulations.

A case in point occurred in London when a sub-contractor severed a 3-phase electrical cable and suffered severe burns. He was working on a construction site at Leonard Street, Islington, and he had to remove the cable. The explosion happened when a main electrical supply cable to the site was cut during its removal.

Renovation Accident

This was a large renovation project involving the conversion of three units at Leonard Street as apartments and commercial properties. Pineview Interiors Ltd were the main contractors.

The site was using a 3-phase 415 volt temporary supply. Before the accident, the building worker told his supervisor that in order that he could fit plasterboard, the electrical cable had to be removed.

City of London Magistrates heard that Pineview Interiors Ltd made only very limited enquiries as to whether this cable was still live. A wrong assumption was made by the company that this was a redundant old cable from the pre-refurbishment circuit.

The man then proceeded to work using a step ladder, and with a hammer and chisel he tried to remove the cable. The resulting short circuit caused an explosion which rendered him unconscious and another man had to extinguish flames from the top half of his body. The worker suffered burns to 30-35% of his body. He required a skin graft from his legs to his body and arms, and his skin may take 2 years to recover.

Pineview Interiors Limited was fined £10,000 plus £4,183 costs.

The HSE Inspector commented:

“Refurbishment works continue to contribute a high proportion of the serious and fatal injuries reported within the construction industry. The defendant company were aware that their works … would require the removal of an electrical head. They were, or should have been, aware that this well labelled system remained live at the time that they instructed their employees to commence work in this location.”

This is a case where workers with no electrical training were sufficiently aware to ask the contractor about the safety of what they were doing. Yet the company made only a very limited effort to establish whether the system was live or dead, and made the wrong assessment. This was a failure to meet their obligations.

A proactive CDM Co-ordinator who was independent from the contracting company and designers would have probably been able to scope out the works clearly so that electrical and civil works were demarcated properly. No-one can legislate totally against short-sighted overseeing at the point of work, but measures can be taken to minimise risk.

Leading safety consultants McCormack Benson Health & Safety have the capabilities and construction industry experience to carry out these CDM co-ordinator duties as well as all forms of risk assessment and electrical safety testing.