5. Assessment of the Evidence
5.1 Causes of fire accidents
1. In 2017-18, accidental fires caused by electrical supply and lighting totalled 413, just under 9% of the total of 4,700 dwelling fires considered accidental. The statistics do not permit us to know what exact deaths and injuries resulted from these fires but, if we could assume that the numbers were proportionate, accidental electrical fires might have been responsible in 2017-18 for 4 deaths and around 100 injuries in Scotland.
2. This compares with 3,466 accidental domestic fires caused by appliances in the home. Proportionately this equates to around 33 deaths and 824 injuries.
3. The statistics do not reveal the importance of human factors in causing accidental fires. Thus, there is no way of correlating accidental electrical fires with the quality of electrical installation work carried out, or the age of the wiring or fittings. Neither do they provide any indication of the persons responsible for the installations or any indication of the division between unqualified people – whether unqualified electricians offering their services for hire or unqualified householders undertaking their own work – and qualified electricians (such details are not currently requested on SFRS fire report forms).
4. Consequently, our research has been able to reveal no indication from official or unofficial statistics that such incidents are caused by a lack of qualification, training or up-to-date-ness of the person carrying out the electrical installation.
5. Risks from defective electrical installations are to property, equipment and people and they can be quantified by looking at the numbers of fires caused by electrical supply and lighting.
The 400 plus accidental fires per year in Scotland caused by faulty electrical supply and lighting might, assuming each fire occurs in a separate dwelling, involve some 1,000 people and might cause up to four fatalities and 100 injuries.
5.2 Electricians and Memberships
6. There is a minimum of around 13,000 "qualified" electricians in Scotland (based on a combination of SJIB registrant and apprentice data). We can also estimate a minimum of around 22,000 people in total working as electricians across the nation. What is impossible to estimate is the number of people outside SOC Code 5241 who may work on domestic electrical installations. The fact that 60% of electricians in Scotland are registered with the SJIB does not necessarily mean that 60% of all Scotland-based electricians are qualified and 40% unqualified. SJIB registration is voluntary. Neither does the fact that we can estimate 22,000 electricians from SOC Code 5241 mean that that total is an adequate representation of the number of people in Scotland who carry out electrical work. Even ignoring DIY householders there will be a reasonably large number of kitchen and bathroom fitters, plumbers and other trades who might turn their hand to electrical work.
7. To make things even more interesting there is the further fact that a number of these other trades-people may be "qualified" electricians who classify their job role as other than 'SOC code 5241' electricians. Some of them may be qualified, but not working in their main role as an electrician, some will be unqualified. However, those totals are impossible to estimate without detailed further research.
5.3 Scale of faulty work
8. In the Call for Evidence, 343 electricians reported having to address faulty work during their careers. Using the modal figure of 10 faulty installations fixed per electrician, the total number of defective installations would be around 3,450. For the modal 30-year career this would imply around 114 per year or just under 0.3 defective installations per year per electrician.
9. If we scale this up by the SOC code figure of c.22,000 electricians in Scotland it results in a very conservative total of around 7,260 remedial operations on defective domestic installations per year in Scotland. Note that this is not the total of defective installation – because we have no way of estimating that figure – but the number of times another electrician has to actually fix a defective installation.
10. There is no way of understanding what the total number of electrical installations (or amendments) there might be in Scotland each year (the definition of "an installation" is crucial), but we can make a rough estimate based on a number of assumptions. We could conservatively assume that each electrician completes perhaps three installations per week; a total of possibly around 3,168,000 "installations" per year in Scotland (some will take a matter of minutes, while others will take much longer).
11. To that we can add a small proportion of the numbers of householders to represent DIY installations. We might sensibly assume that ten households per hundred will undertake a single instance of some form of DIY electrical installation or repair each year – 10% of Scotland's 2.4m households). Furthermore, we might add 0.1% of households having electrical work done by kitchen fitters and other non-electrician operatives.
12. The 7,260 defective installations therefore represent 0.2% of this total number of electrical "installations" - around two in every thousand original installations (a "defect ratio" of 1:500). One also has to take into account that an "installation/repair/amendment" may, in reality, involve a number of separate sub-installations and components of which only one may later prove defective. If the average number of steps or sub-installations per installation is as low as three, the defect ration would drop to 1:1500.
The calculation would therefore result in, per year:
- Installations completed by electricians: c3.168m
- Installations and amendments carried out by DIY householders: 240,000
- Installations and amendments carried out by non-electrician tradespeople: 2,400
Total c3,40,000 electrical installations or repairs across Scotland each year.
13. Each case will, of course, vary in scope, scale and risk and we discussed an indicative risk assessment for defective electrical installations in the domestic setting in section 4.
14. However, taking the average cost of repairing a defect as £850 (as revealed by the survey conducted for this research), the total annual cost to Scottish consumers of remedying electrical defects might be around £6.2m (£850 x 7,260 defective installations). This is not the cost of the possible consequences of some of the defects (e.g. fire) but we have only a limited means of calculating those costs. We saw, earlier that there were some 413 accidental electrical fires in 2017-18 caused by faulty electrical supply or by defective lighting. There is no way of arriving at an average cost per fire through official statistics but even a rough average of (say) £5,000 per fire (not including the use of the emergency services etc – see below) would lead to a possible cost to Scottish insurers of a further £2m.
15. There is, in addition, the costs to the Scottish economy of fighting fires resulting from defective electrical installations. The evidence shows around 400 such fires per year and each represents a cost to the SFRS. If each call out and firefighting exercise could be averaged at (say) £10,000 in costs the overall annual cost would be another £4m.
16. Insurance companies would probably value a life at a multiple of probable remaining years of life times an average of likely salary or earning power over those years. We cannot calculate this accurately without knowing exact details of the fatalities. But a rough estimate might value the four electrical fire deaths at perhaps twenty-years times average annual income – a cost per life of a minimum of £600,000. Four deaths from defective electrical in 2017-18 therefore cost a minimum of £2.4m and injuries probably added another £500,000 due to NHS and personal costs.
17. Risk is very much in the eye of the beholder, especially where members of the public are concerned, but we have shown that there are quantifiable consequences from defective installations which might be summarised as:
- Around £12m in financial costs to consumers and insurance companies per year.
- Up to four people's lives each year.
- Up to around 100 injured people each year.
Total annual costs of defective electrical supply and lighting could, therefore, be estimated at some £15m plus the unquantifiable, non-fatal, non-injury human costs.
This research has demonstrated a call for further regulation of electricians, the legal protection of the title of electrician, regular updating of skills and knowledge and, possibly, occupational licensing.
It is very apparent that there is a lack of awareness in the most important groups – the public and electricians themselves – that electricians do not need to have undergone any formal electrical training to practise their trade.
Over half of the general public might be unaware of the ability for someone to call themselves an electrician, even without qualification or competence. This, alone, might prove to be a powerful driver behind poor decision-making when employing an electrician in a domestic setting.
The overall aim of this research has been to acquire and critically examine the evidence surrounding poor or dangerous electrical work, and to provide the Scottish Government, where feasible, with a strategy or options to reduce any risks posed by such work. This translates into the following bulleted objectives each of which is annotated with a summary of our findings.
- Evaluate existing evidence and methodologies
Most of the existing evidence is directed at broad statistics for occupational groups and fire variables. It does not help us to understand how, why and by whom defective installations are conducted.
There could be argued to be a pressing need for further evidence on such questions as – who, exactly, is installing defective electrical supply and lighting? How old are such installations and to what extent is changing wiring regulations responsible for apparent "defective" installations today (i.e. could the installation have been compliant with regulations when originally installed)? To what extent are householders themselves at fault, and so on.
There would also seem to be a need for further evidence as to the amount and type of electrical installation work being undertaken by householders. A properly-designed survey could provide a good estimate of this and might be worthwhile as poor DIY can cause fires and injure people through shock just as readily as faulty work by unqualified or qualified electricians.
Further evidence may well be desirable but the findings from this research would seem to indicate a need for action in the short-term rather than immediate further research.
- Identify where additional research is required and undertake research to:
- profile the number of electricians belonging to recognised trade bodies or holding recognised qualifications or registration;
We know that there are at least 22,000 self-assigned "electricians" in Scotland in the national statistics of the Standard Occupational Code (SOC). We also know that there are around 13,000 qualified (or near-qualified) electricians registered with the SJIB. As other trade bodies engage with companies rather than individuals, this is the most reliable indication of qualified numbers.
However, these findings do not mean that the other 9,000 plus are necessarily unqualified.
- quantify the number of tradespeople operating without demonstrable proof of competence;
This objective has proved to be impossible to answer. If proof of competence is restricted to qualifications (rather than simply membership of a trade body or competence gained through experience) we know only that there are two groups of people whose qualifications we cannot be certain of: the 9,000 or so SOC electricians who are not registered with the SJIB, plus the unknown quantity of people undertaking electrical work whose main trade is not electrical (e.g. gas
installers, kitchen fitters, plumbers, and handymen). The number of the latter undertaking electrical work could be reasonably high, but without detailed further research it is impossible to even estimate.
These might constitute the potential pool of "tradespeople" undertaking electrical work without relevant qualifications, but we must also remember that householders, themselves, are able to conduct their own electrical work (unlike in Canada where this is prohibited in most Provinces). What quantities of householders do their own work, what volume, and to what level of complexity is as yet unknown but there are 2.4m dwellings in Scotland and, just because a householder tells the electrician that another electrician installed a defective fitting, does not mean that they are being entirely forthright.
- provide evidence of any dangerous installations carried out by unqualified electricians;
This research has estimated that there may be over 7,000 defective installations repaired each year in Scotland, but it has been impossible to ascertain whether those installations were old or recent, whether they were conducted by qualified or unqualified electricians, and perhaps most importantly, whether the qualified electricians were entirely up-to-date in their trade.
Official records do not, as things stand, require details of such variables as age of fitting, person who undertook the job, qualifications (if any) of that person, or the degree to which they were up-to-date in electrical regulations.
- provide evidence of any harm caused by dangerous installations;
We have shown that (while there may be a slight exaggeration in the statistical approximation) there may be up to four deaths and 100 injuries per year caused by accidental fires due to electrical supply and fitting faults. There may, additionally, be injuries and possibly even deaths associated with faulty fittings due to electrical shock. Official health statistics record the incidence of electric shock but they do not distinguish between shock caused by faulty fittings and shock caused by such things as misuse of appliances, faulty/worn appliances, accidental shock due to placing implements in electrical sockets, and so on. Even were these details recorded it would be impossible to know to what extent the faulty fittings were installed by qualified or unqualified people.
Costs to the householders and damage to property may total around £12m at conservative estimates (plus the costs of deaths and injuries).
There is also however no way of understanding the proportion of this harm and damage caused by qualified electricians making mistakes or not being up-to-date, and that caused accidentally by incompetent, unqualified people.
- Undertake a risk assessment based on the evidence identified.
In comparison to other risks to the Scottish public, those from defective electrical supply and fittings are quite low. The dangers of electrical fires from misused or faulty appliances (cookers, hair-dryers, fires, etc.) are far higher.
The cost to the Scottish economy each year from defective electrical supply and light fittings is likely to be at least £15m, not to mention the human costs in lives lost, injuries sustained and lives disrupted.
It is essentially a value-judgment as to whether it warrants increased regulation.
- Develop a business case examining options for change and the feasibility of the options.
See the following section.