Neil Smith, technical manager at CMD Ltd and member of the BSI committee, discusses the proposed update to the BS 6396 standard
Change is constant, particularly in the electrical sector where emerging technologies and innovation result in new products – and even new categories – on a yearly basis. But the change we have experienced recently has not just affected the products being specified, but also what the end-user needs and expects from them.
Over the past two years, employers and employees have achieved something that neither believed would ever happen: they have made working from home a reality, not just for senior execs but for anyone with an office-based role. The transition was rapid and unplanned, which meant that there was a make-do-and-mend approach to home-office set-up, in terms of both resilience and safety.
That was fine in response to the COVID-19 crisis, but, as we move into a new phase of more permanent work routines, how can we ensure that the influence of our new appetite for working from home is reflected in the standards and compliance requirements designed to make our work environments safe?
The answer is a revision of BS 6396. While many office workers may become permanently home-based following the pandemic, others are likely to mix and match working from home with the office, while some will hot desk in office environments. An updated BS 6396 needs to consider all of these groups and make provision for consistent safety and resilience across all work environments. Homeworking is no longer the choice – and the risk – of the individual; it is mandated by many employers so the home workstation has become an extension of the work environment and the due diligence required for the office should now also be extended to the home.
BS 6396 has been under review during the pandemic and the public consultation on the proposed revised standard closed on the 21st December 2021. The revised BS 6396 is expected to be published in early in 2022 and the electrical supply chain will be able to scrutinise the detail of the new requirements when they are confirmed. It is already clear, however, that the revised standard will apply to all furniture with integral electric sockets, as opposed to only items of furniture specifically located in office or education environments. We can expect enhanced clarity and a focus on both safety and resilience as compliance keeps step with the very altered face of work environments in the post-Covid era.
Why do we have BS 6396?
BS 6396 is a British Standard that ensures electrical power, data and telecommunications systems in office furniture, office screens and educational furniture are designed, tested and installed in a way that is safe and complies with all relevant laws and regulations, in particular, the Electricity at Work Regulations and the Health & Safety at Work Act.
The current standard stipulates that workstations in offices and educational settings should only incorporate electrical equipment with a fuse rating of no more than 5 Amps, which can be configured as six individually fused sockets rated at 3.15 Amps each, or four individually fused sockets rated at 5 Amps each, fed from one 13 Amp BS 1363 UK plug. It describes procedures for testing the electrical installations on reconfigured desks and screens, as well as new installations, along with the need to repeat the tests periodically to fulfil the requirements of BS 6396 and the Electricity at Work Regulations
What can we expect from the revised BS 6396?
The final detail of the revised BS 6396 standard will not be known until it is published, but it seems clear that the standard will apply to all furniture with integral power distribution, including that used in domestic settings. Where workstation furniture is installed in the home for work use, the responsibility to ensure the safety of the employee while they are working remains with the employer. The difficulty for the employer is that they have less control over the electrical services in the home environment than they do in the office. Consequently, it makes sense for them to build as much safety, resilience and convenience into the workstation as possible.
Circuit protection is an obvious way of achieving both safety and ease of re-setting should there be a spike in current. Historically, specifiers have interpreted BS 6396 differently when it comes to circuit protection, with an assumption from some that electrical services installed in workstations should be fused for safety. In fact, however, circuit breakers have always been permitted, and many desks have been fused unnecessarily where circuit breakers could have been specified. While the safety levels of an installation protected by a fuse and a circuit breaker are comparable, a circuit breaker is much more convenient for the end user because it can be reset easily. A circuit breaker allows an easy fix, enabling people to get back to working much quicker, and this is even more useful for those working from home, where there is no maintenance provision on site to change a fuse.
The other major safety consideration for employers allowing or mandating employees to work from home is the safety of electrical supply, because they cannot know whether there is RCD protection at the wall socket. Without RCD protection, damaged wires could become a safety hazard, and this can happen very easily in the home, if wires become trapped in the mechanism of sit/stand desks, for example or are chewed by a pet. The best way to avoid this risk is by including a 30mA RCD protection on the primary side (under desk) of the furniture distribution.
The other key area we can expect to see reflected in the revised BS 6396 is the changing way people use tech while working and the devices they use. The pandemic has prompted a revolution in the way we communicate over video calling and shared workstream platforms, and many employees now need to power and charge multiple devices. Meanwhile, more devices are suitable for USB charging so the mix of sockets, USB chargers and A/V outlets needed at the workstation has changed too.
Flexibility is therefore part of the drivers for change underpinning revisions to the standard too, and we are likely to see new guidance in this regard, alongside safety and resilience. As always, when the new standard is published, CMD will be on hand to advise and inform customers across the delivery chain.
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