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Are apprentices in unsafe hands?

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42In May of this year an apprentice electrician was taken to hospital after falling 5m at the Barangaroo construction site in Sydney. According to the Electrical Trades Union, the first-year apprentice was working with another apprentice when he fell through a temporary floor cover over one of the service risers.

Thankfully, the man will make a full recovery; however, this terrible accident highlights two truths. The first is the dangerous nature of electrical jobs and the second being the vulnerability of apprentices, especially those in the early stages of training.

An electrical apprenticeship is one of the only jobs where you can get killed in the first few days of work and that’s why apprentice safety is something I’m so passionate about. While I believe on-the-job training is the best training, I want employers across the industry to recognise the need to increase safety measures to protect those who are most vulnerable; our apprentices.

Unfortunately though, many employers have adopted bad practices as a means of saving time and money. This means apprentices are often not adequately supervised on the job. In my own career, I’ve seen cases where fourth year apprentices take on the supervision role for second year apprentices. This is not only illegal but dangerous. Fourth year apprentices aren’t qualified electricians and, generally speaking, are less likely to be strict with peers or to check their work thoroughly – creating a risk for everyone involved.

Direct supervision should be undertaken with a qualified electrician for a minimum of 12 months for absolutely everything. As time goes on, of course it’s natural to give the apprentice more and more responsibility but not complete independence.

The reality is that even a simple job can take unexpected turns which apprentices aren’t always prepared for.  This is particularly true with the rise of the DIYer which means a simple residential job might actually have mixed circuits or mixed actives and neutrals which can be dangerous for anyone, let alone someone who hasn’t had much experience. One wrong move can put an apprentice in immediate danger, cause a fire, or result in injury or death.

Undoubtedly the best training is one-on-one, which not only gives apprentices the best chance of developing skills to assist them in their career but also ensures safety measures are understood and followed. If you’re working one-on-one with an apprentice you know what they’re capable of and can more easily make a judgement as to whether they require direct or general supervision. With the benefits of direct supervision and training clear, it raises the question of whether direct supervision should be more than recommended, but a legal requirement.

According to the new requirements for the Effective Supervision of Apprentice Electricians, released by Energy Safe Victoria (ESV), direct supervision is necessary for third year apprentices carrying out basic fault finding and fourth year apprentices carrying out advanced fault finding and confirmation of isolation. It’s worth noting here that in all cases, the supervising electrician shall be responsible for carrying out isolation procedures, confirmation of isolation, compliance testing and commissioning/energisation.

The ESV standards are a great initiative and I’d like to see them become national. It makes sense for employers to make a judgement about whether director or general supervision is needed on other tasks as you can have some apprentices who are a lot savvier and competent who can be trusted to do certain activities once they’ve demonstrated the task over and over again.

The new standards then of course raise questions of competency. In addition to ESV, Queensland standards also reference competency levels stating that the level of supervision required depends on the work, level of training, and competence of the apprentice. However, in my experience apprentices are prone to overestimating their capability and as an employer it’s our role to give constant feedback to manage expectations of what they are and aren’t capable of achieving.

There are a whole host of competencies that need to be checked off before someone can ‘graduate’ and the big theory test is the capstone which a lot of apprentices fail. With this in mind, the best way to see if an apprentice can move from direct to general supervision is to check and monitor their work. Some apprentices make the same mistakes over and over again so it’s really important to keep a close eye on their activity and constantly review it to make sure bad habits don’t set in.

The way I was taught, and have seen others taught, is through observation. I remember that during my first six months I was bored, because I wasn’t allowed to get in and do stuff! But ultimately given the consequences of a basic mistake it’s important to take a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach. If you give an apprentice too much responsibility and freedom too quickly, that’s when accidents happen. Particularly in the early years it’s a good idea for apprentices to stand back and observe as it’s a great way to learn, and later in their career they’ll think so too.

Another key component in ensuring apprentices are as safe as possible is ensuring the right person is supervising their activity.

Determining who the best person is to supervise an apprentice should always be done on a case by case basis. According to the regulations, once you have your electrician’s ticket you’re able to supervise an apprentice. On large jobs, recently fledged sparkies often supervise the first years and in some cases it’s perfectly ok for someone who’s just finished to look after a younger apprentice. What troubles me though is when an electrician who has only just passed their exams has the sole responsibility of mentoring a younger student one-on-one. Personally, I’d like to see a few years’ experience before and newly qualified sparky can undertake an apprentice.

Overall, the safety standards are changing and that’s a good thing. While a lot of the responsibility sits with the supervisor, the apprentice also has a role to play in developing their skills and their safe practices. My advice to apprentice electricians who want to stay safe while progressing as quickly as they can is to test, test, test! The first thing we’re taught is test your tester and test again. Even when you have tested a circuit and it is testing dead, still assume it could be live and treat it as being a live circuit. Don’t ever trust your sparky when they tell you a circuit is dead – test! Combining this approach with the change in the industry, we should start to see safety practices improve across the industry.

About Rebecca Mair

Rebecca Mair

Rebecca 'Bec Sparky' Mair is a qualified electrician and renovation expert. Bec currently works as a Consumer Brand Ambassador at Clipsal by Schneider Electric where she is helping to demystify the electrical industry and share important tips on safety, energy saving and products.

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