Last Sunday was the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, so this week we thought we would cover off on a topic relevant to community aged and disability workers – the use of Residual Current Devices when providing home care services.

Are residual current devices a good idea for care staff?

I was recently asked by an organisation whether they should be providing their staff with portable Residual Current Devices (RCD’s). They also wondered whether they should be making it mandatory for staff to use the devices when using electrical equipment in the client’s home, and if so what electrical items did this refer to?

After quite a bit of research, my response was that there is little downside to incorporating the use of the device, apart from the minimal effort required by the staff member to remember to use it; and a number of positive reasons in doing so.

The use of the device can save lives, minimising the risk of electrocution and electrical fires.

What is a Residual Current Device (RCD)?

An RCD is a device that protects you from the most common cause of electrocution in the home – a shock caused by electricity passing through your body to the earth, from a faulty appliance. It is designed to immediately cut the power supply if it detects electricity leaking to earth at harmful levels.

But what about Safety Switches?

Of course, it is one additional step in the process of setting up to complete a task. You need to remember to insert the device between the power outlet and the piece of electrical equipment and this leads to resistance by some workers.

The most common objection some people have against the use of a portable RCD is that most homes now have safety switches installed. While it is true, in Australia, all newly built houses, along with homes rented through a reputable agent, should have a fixed RCD fitted, we can’t guarantee that the homes of every client will have one fitted.

Additionally, there is a difference between a circuit breaker (safety switch) that can be rated to trip at anywhere between 8 to 80Amps and an RCD that will immediately cut off the supply at around 10 to 30mAmps.

While newer homes will be fitted with the RCD, the home of some clients could still only have the safety switch. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of any amount of electrical current.

Where are the major risks?

The requirement to have a fixed RCD installed is relatively new. Many clients may still live in the home they raised their children in – a home built in the 40’s, 50’s or 60’s, well before RCD’s were a requirement. Some of these homes will still have the old fuse system. I recently saw a place that was built in the 70’s, which still had old wire fuses. The old electrical system used wires threaded through a ceramic holder. This fuse was designed to ‘burn out’ if overloaded and, depending on the circuit it related to, the fuses were fitted with different wire thicknesses.

Of course, it’s a nuisance when a fuse blows, so this meant that sometimes people fitted a fuse that regularly ‘tripped’ with thicker wire, resulting in a potential electrocution or fire hazard. Hopefully over the years these fuse boards have had a master safety switch fitted, but this cannot be guaranteed.

Old farmhouses or privately rented homes may also potentially be non-compliant with the RCD requirements. Plus, sometimes these homes have had illegal wiring work carried out, which places not only your staff, but also the client at risk.

And don’t overlook the taped down circuit breaker! Often the result of a faulty item tripping the circuit regularly, leading to the home owner (or more likely their teenage relative who didn’t like having their computer game being interrupted) taping down the switch to prevent it from tripping.

So when should staff use the portable RCD?

In the Home Care workplace staff should use an RCD when:

  • the normal use of the equipment exposes it to operating conditions that are likely to result in damage to the equipment or a reduction in its expected life span – including exposure to moisture, heat, vibration, mechanical damage, corrosive chemicals or dust;
  • electrical equipment is moved between different locations, in circumstances where damage to the equipment or to a flexible electricity supply cord is reasonably likely;
  • electrical equipment is frequently moved during its normal use.

The sort of equipment that your staff may use in providing support that could be adversely affected might include:

  • Vacuum cleaners
  • Electric lawn mowers or garden shears
  • Extension leads
  • Electric knives
  • Hair dryers and irons – particularly if they are older models

It’s a good idea to review the equipment that your care staff may be expected to use when doing the Home Safety Check. If the client has a vacuum from the 1970’s, you’ll either need to ask them to replace this with an up to date model, or you may need to provide your staff member with one to use when delivering cleaning services. It will come down to your organisation's policy as to which of these options you use.

How often do you need to test a portable RCD?

Manufactures recommend that portable RCD’s should be checked to see that they are still effective each time they are used. This is simply a matter of pushing in the button on the device to ensure that it is still operable. Staff should be advised of this requirement when they are issued with a portable RCD.

At a minimum, all RCD’s provided to staff should be tested and tagged as part of your organisation’s annual test and tag program.

What should you do if you get a ‘tingle’ from using electrical equipment?

To all support staff: do not dismiss the ‘tingle’ or zap from a piece of equipment! If you receive any sort of shock, no matter how small, you need to report this to management.

Staff may need to be medically monitored for up to 24 hours after receiving even a minor shock, as there can be adverse reactions some hours later.

The offending equipment should be removed from the home so that it does not pose a risk to others.

So, do you want your home care staff to use an RCD? Yes!!

We developed a ToolBox Talk to accompany this post. It is just one example of the ever-increasing number of aged care specific ToolBox Talks that you’ll find in the CDCS Total Quality Package resource hub.

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