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The dangers of policing electrical installations by unaccredited government agents

By Mark Botha 9 June 2011

The policing of electrical work to ensure integrity of workmanship and the safety of residents and buildings has a long and tortuous history in South Africa. While electrical contractors clearly need independent oversight to minimise danger to life and property, this oversight should not be provided by external agents of the department of labour operating with exemptions from the competency and accreditation requirements of the Electrical Installation Regulations. By CHRIS YELLAND and MARK BOTHA.

Prior to 23 October 1992, the electrical contracting industry fell under the provisions of the Electrical Installation Regulations of 1985, promulgated in terms of the Machinery and Occupational Safety Act, 1983. In terms of these regulations, any person undertaking installation work as an electrical contractor was required to register on an annual basis with the electricity supplier (Eskom or municipality) in the areas the work was to be performed. In many instances, this meant the contractor had to register with quite a number of electricity suppliers depending on the locations of the various work sites. The regulations further required the electrical contractor to notify the supplier in advance of any installation work intended to be carried out and, on completion, the contractor had to issue a Certificate of Compliance (CoC) for the work performed to the electricity supplier. The electricity supplier was then required to inspect and test at least 70% of the electrical installations of new premises, as well as additions or alterations to existing premises.

In the early 1990s, Eskom and the Association of Municipal Electricity Undertakings of South Africa approached the chief inspector at the department of labour, who had jurisdiction over the regulations, and argued that their function was to provide electricity to consumers and not to police electrical contractors.  Because of the enormous cost of having to employ inspectors for this purpose, Eskom and municipalities no longer wished to be responsible for registration of electrical contractors, nor for inspecting and testing their work. Instead they proposed the industry should be self-policing and electrical contractors should be responsible for inspecting and testing their own installations and issuing the necessary CoCs to their customers.

As a result of this, revised Electrical Installation Regulations were published on 23 October 1992. In terms of these regulations, all electrical contractors were now required to register on an annual basis with the so-called Electrical Contracting Board  and to inspect, test and issue CoCs for their own work. The same regulations also introduced a new requirement with effect from 1 March 1994 whereby the owner of a premises must produce a valid CoC for the electrical installation for change in ownership of the premises.

Because of complaints received by the department of labour about wrongly or fraudulently issued CoCs, and the self-regulation of the electrical installations industry, in September 1998 a pilot scheme was introduced for the registration of so-called Approved Inspection Authorities with certain authorities and functions. The principal function of AIAs was to carry out technical inspections, investigations and reporting on incidents and complaints about wrongly or fraudulently issued CoCs by electrical contractors on behalf of the department of labour. Subsequently the pilot scheme was extended until 31 October 2000, but it does not appear it was ever extended again beyond this date.

The introduction of AIAs was not popular among electrical contractors and was challenged in court by the Electrical Contractors Association of South Africa, but for some unknown reason the case was never heard. However, in terms of a legal opinion given on 6 August 2002 by the department of labour’s own legal services division, the chief inspector could only approve AIAs in terms of the Electrical Machinery Regulations, and not the Electrical Installation Regulations. The same legal opinion indicated that the chief inspector could not delegate or grant to an AIA his functions or powers in respect of electrical installations, and that the AIA could only operate within the ambit of Regulation 12 of the Electrical Machinery Regulations to perform prescribed functions with regard to the manufacture or testing of electrical machinery, and not electrical installations. However, despite the legal opinion of its own legal services division, AIAs appointed by the department of labour in terms of the pilot scheme continued to operate with its blessing, and perhaps illegally.

Then finally, after a very long gestation period, new Electrical Installation Regulations were published in the Government Gazette on 6 March 2009, and apart from one sub-regulation, came into effect on 1 May 2009.  These regulations at long-last formally introduced the concept of Approved Inspection Authorities for Electrical Installations. In terms of Regulation 3, the Chief Inspector may approve any person that has been accredited by the independent South African National Accreditation System as an Approved Inspection Authority for electrical installations. Regulation 4 further provides that the AIAs so appointed may enter any premises to conduct an inspection, test and/or investigation only when contracted to do so by the chief inspector or provincial director for a specific electrical installation; or when requested to do so by the owner, user or leaser of the premises. AIAs may not themselves operate as electrical contractors to perform any electrical installation work.

Sanas has indicated that to date, more than two years after the new Electrical Installation Regulations were gazetted, no AIAs for electrical installations have yet been accredited. However, a number of AIAs still appear to be operating with the blessing of the department of labour through notices issued by the chief inspector exempting these AIAs from the independent accreditation for competency by Sanas as required by the Electrical Installation Regulations.

There is little doubt that AIAs are needed in the industry and have a vital role in ensuring CoCs are properly issued, and that electrical installations are carried out in accordance with the Wiring Code, and do not present a danger to life or property. A lot of shoddy and illegal electrical installation work is taking place and must be stopped, and undoubtedly some CoCs are being wrongly or fraudulently issued by rogue electrical contractors.

However, as things stand at the moment, the operation of AIAs that have not been accredited for competency is no different to pirate electrical contractors operating without being registered with the Electrical Contractin3g Board. Yet the unaccredited AIAs now operating are in a position to condemn an electrical installation and/or to recommend to the chief inspector that a person’s certificate of registration as an electrical tester for single phase, installation electrician or master installation electrician be withdrawn.

This irregular situation surely cannot be allowed to continue, as it opens the door to serious legal challenges that may work to the detriment of the safety of residents, occupants and workers within domestic dwellings, buildings and factories in South Africa. DM



Yelland and Botha are publishers of EE Publications


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