UK Electrical Background
Most people are familiar with Electrical Socket Safety Covers, but why are they sold in the UK and why are they dangerous?
Around the world, electrical systems differ widely, not just in voltage but in the various national/regional ways that items are plugged in. That’s why there is such a market for Travel Adaptors in the airport departure shops!
Globally, we have 2 pin, 3 pin, flat pin, round pin, etc., etc. in a multitude of layouts, almost all of which have open sockets in the wall for the plugs to be inserted into.
UK Electrical safety is covered by British Standards. The UK, pre World War II, used to have round pin plugs to BS546, which had different sizes of plug for different circuits; but during the war, with an eye on post war reconstruction, the government sought to reduce the use of raw materials and improve electrical safety. The result was BS1363:1947, a single plug design, including a fuse for each appliance, and shutters on the receiving socket.
BS1363, as revised over the subsequent years, specifies the dimensions of the pins on the plug and that sockets must be made to mate correctly with such a plug. The shutters on the Live and Neutral connections are interlocked to the insertion of the larger Earth Pin and are designed to stop items being inserted into the socket. This applies whether it is wall mounted, a multi-way adaptor or on a trailing lead.
There is no standard for ‘Electrical Safety Covers’ to fit BS1363 sockets. Why would there be; the sockets have inbuilt safety features that negate the need for such devices.
You will not find any such ‘Safety Cover’ with any markings such as BS or a CE mark, since there is no standards to assess them against.
So what’s the harm in using them?
The danger is on two fronts.
Firstly, since there is no standard for their construction, designs vary widely and many rely on oversize ‘pins’ to hold the cover firmly in the socket. This can lead to damage and distortion of the contacts in the socket. Subsequent use of the socket with an appliance can therefore lead to a poor contact, potential arching and a fire.
Secondly, and more importantly, some covers can be a loose fit, making them easy to remove. Young children are inquisitive and the majority of them will have some sort of shape sorter toy. If the child removes the cover and then manages to reinsert the large pin with the cover upside down, they will have opened the internal safety shutters. This then allows objects to be inserted, the very event these alleged ‘Safety Covers’ claim to prevent.
Linked to this is the possibility of a child breaking a cover such that the large pin remains in the socket while the remainder comes away; this would leave the smaller socket shutters retracted and the live parts accessible.
Why are they on sale?
There are only two reasons these alleged ‘Electrical Safety Covers’ are on sale in the United Kingdom.
A misplaced sense of safety by people who don’t understand how BS1363 mandates safety for UK electrics; and the desire to make money by unscrupulous manufacturers and retailers who promote these items.
Earlier, I mentioned the older BS546 standard of round pin connectors. These are still in use for dedicated lighting circuits, though rarely found in domestic properties. But nobody makes an ‘Electrical Socket Safety Cover’ to fit them; clearly not enough profit in selling the few that might be needed.
Unfortunately, there are many unwitting, yet well meaning, souls who have climbed on the bandwagon of promoting these dangerous devices. Even Ofsted Inspectors have been known to cite their use as a requirement in Children’s Nurseries. Despite Ofsted officially sitting on the fence in 2011. (1)
By using these covers you could actually be invalidating your building insurance. Imagine there’s a fire and the insurance company discover you have plugged an inappropriate and unnecessary device into a socket; might it be a reason not to pay out on a claim?
If you’re using these covers at home or in a workplace, perhaps a Nursery, Doctor’s or Dentist’s waiting room:
• Remove them immediately. Destroy them so that a child cannot get hold of one and attempt to fit it
• Visually examine the two small pin entries and ensure the internal covers are blocking the holes
• Plug in an appliance such as a kettle. Make sure the plug inserts and removes freely but not loosely, remaining a good fit once fully inserted
• While it’s plugged in, turn it on and listen for any sound of arching in the socket (this is why I said Kettle and not vacuum cleaner, so it’s a reasonable current draw but you can hear possible arching). Is there any burning smell?
If all appears satisfactory, then unplug the appliance and breath a sigh of relief; if you have any concerns about whether a socket has been damaged, consult a qualified electrician.
Always be attentive to any socket that appears loose or stiff when plugging in an appliance.
UPDATE: As of 30 June 2016, the National Health Service has issued a UK wide Safety Alert, for cascade down through Hospitals to all Doctors and Dentists Surgeries, calling for removal of any such socket covers fitted in health care facilities:
This Alert is issued to highlight how, in certain circumstances, the use of plastic 13A (13 amp) electrical socket inserts (sold as safety accessories) can overcome the safety features designed into socket outlets.
13A electrical socket inserts should not be used in health or social care premises, nor supplied for use in a home or residence. Any socket inserts currently in use should be withdrawn from use and responsibly disposed of.
if you would information about safety in your workplace, what you should and should not be doing to keep safe, please contact Belvoir Safety Services.
Bernard Carey is a Chartered Occupational Safety & Health Practitioner, specialising in providing practical and proportionate support to small businesses.
(1)Archive – 2011 Booklet on Ofsted Inspections Page 11