Shocked! - Letter to the Editor, “Wiring Matters”

Issue No. 44 of the IET Magazine “Wiring Matters” carried an article on Socket Protectors by Mark Coles, Technical Regulations Manager at The Institution of Engineering and Technology.  A copy of the article is available here.

The following letter was published in Issue 45 of “Wiring Matters”:

The article on socket protectors in the latest edition of Wiring Matters caught my attention. There were two main reasons for this: first, as a grandfather of two young boys I use socket protectors in my house whenever my grandsons visit; and, secondly, because last year I gave evidence on socket protectors at a Fatal Accident Inquiry (the equivalent in Scotland of an inquest in England and Wales) concerning the tragic electrocution of a 22-month old boy in his home. I had investigated this fatal accident in my capacity as the Health & Safety Executive's Principal Specialist Inspector (Electrical Engineering) in Scotland.

The young boy died when he picked up a short length of flexible cable, plugged it into a socket-outlet in his bedroom, and took hold of the exposed live conductor. The cable had been left in the property by some workmen who had removed it from an oven they were installing. I gave evidence on the hazards and risks associated with not disposing of unterminated cables, on relevant legal duties, and on the matter of whether an RCD in the installation would have prevented the death. However, as I was giving my evidence I was asked by the Procurator Fiscal if the death would have been prevented if a socket protector had been plugged into the socket-outlet. Having advised the court that domestic electrical safety is not a matter within HSE's remit, I did express the professional opinion that a socket protector would have prevented the accident. I maintain this view - I see this function of preventing inquisitive and playful youngsters from plugging appliances into socket-outlets as being the main advantage of socket protectors.

I agree with Mark Coles about the effectiveness of the shutter mechanism on BS 1363 socket-outlets preventing things being poked into the sockets. But I also agree with the sentiment in the second sentence of the government’s advice about socket protectors stopping young children plugging in appliances. On that basis, in the context of Mark's valid observations about the deficiencies of, and dangers associated with, some socket protectors currently on the market, I would suggest that the best solution is for interested parties, including the IET, to press for a British Standard on socket protectors to set standards on matters such as the size of the pins and the materials of construction.

John Madden
HM Principal Specialist Inspector (Electrical Engineering)
Health and Safety Executive

Liam cable

Note:  The government advice referred to is no longer published on the web (it was removed in October 2012).  It read: “It is very difficult for a child to get an electric shock by playing with a socket, so you shouldn't need to use socket covers. However, in some instances they may stop young children plugging in heaters or other appliances that could cause burns or start a fire. You should not rely on socket covers as they are not regulated for safety. It's much better to make sure appliances are safely put away.”   The original government advice was “Put plug guards into sockets so children can't stick anything into the holes”.  The wording was revised by CAPT, and the warning was added following the intervention of FatallyFlawed (The Campaign to Raise Awareness of the Dangers of Socket Covers) in January 2009.   FatallyFlawed does not support the use of unregulated socket covers to prevent plugs being inserted.

The following letter was edited to fit the Letters page of “Wiring Matters” Issue 46.  Here, with the kind cooperation of Roger Dettmer (Editor of Wiring Matters) we reproduce the full original text of that letter, complete with references and links.  The text not present in the edited version is shown in square brackets [ ].

It is good to see John Madden calling for a British Standard for socket covers (letter in the  issue 45 of Wiring Matters). Regulation is also the subject of a [government] e-petition started by Trevor Ord and supported by FatallyFlawed.

Mr Madden raises a number of issues deserving further examination. He refers to the evidence he gave to the Fatal Accident Inquiry into the tragic death of Liam Boyle, who was killed as a result of having access to a cable with exposed conductors. The Sheriff’s determination in this case is online in the public domain, and is worth studying.  [For convenience, a PDF version of the determination is available.]

The idea that plug-in socket covers reliably prevent children from plugging in dangerous appliances is not based on research or fact, but on wishful thinking. A BS 1363 plug is secured in a socket solely by force exerted on the pins by the socket contacts. [The withdrawal force of a socket cover can only be increased by making the pins oversized, or by placing them off centre to create friction between pin and pin aperture, both of these are found in practice, but may cause damage.  There is no possibility (short of changing the BS 1363 design) that plug-in socket covers can be anchored to a socket.]   The only way that a cover can legitimately be made difficult to remove is to ensure that it is impossible to grip it and that there is no gap between cover and socket face. The shape of the cover must ensure that any finger pressure results in a force which pushes the cover into the socket, with removal only possible with a tool. In practice there are no covers available meeting these criteria, and none that conform to BS 1363 plug dimensions. A common fault is to have pins shorter than the specified length; this tends to cause the “pop-out” effect which makes covers very easy to remove. [Parents frequently report that small children are able to remove covers more easily than adults;] a YouTube video depicts an 11 month old child removing a cover in two seconds.

[Roger Cheetham, managing director of Clippasafe, has stated that “Plug socket covers will prevent children from plugging in electrical items”, but sells his product  as “easily removed from the socket by inserting the plug you need to use” - clearly these statements are contradictory.   There is no UK academic research on the effectiveness of socket covers, but American research has demonstrated how easily children can remove socket covers and concludes that they provide a false sense of security.]

[Consider a hypothetical cover which is difficult to remove, but made to the correct size.  For this cover to be effective it would need to be installed in every single child accessible socket, meaning that NO plug could be left in a socket, because a child capable of plugging in a dangerous appliance can certainly remove another plug to do it.  This is clearly impractical.]  Evidence showed that Liam (22 months) was adept at removing and inserting plugs. The important message is that dangerous items must be kept beyond the reach of children, promoting the use of socket covers to prevent plugging them in is ineffective and a misguided distraction.

The only “reasonable precautions” which form part of the determination were that “the cable and plug be kept in a place where Liam could not get at them…” and that “once that work had been completed, they be removed…”, the Sheriff having rejected the socket cover suggestion because there was no supporting evidence. [But, Liam died because a redundant cable was removed from an appliance without the plug having been removed first!]  Mr Madden’s photograph of the cable shows that the plug was a conventional rewirable type. Had it been removed from the cable before the cable was disconnected from the appliance Liam would not have been killed. If the plug had been a non-rewirable type, then it could have been made safe by removing the fuse, using pliers to twist the power pins to prevent further insertion, and then cutting it cleanly from the cable (as shown in the picture) before disconnecting the cable.  Removal of the plug before disconnecting the cable was the most important precaution which should have been suggested to the Inquiry, but the Sheriff’s determination makes no reference to it, indicating that it was not raised.

David Peacock FIET
Co-founder, FatallyFlawed


Research on socket covers was undertaken by Professor Marcella V Ridenour of the Biokinetics Research Laboratory at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. Published as: Ridenour, M. V. (1997) Age appropriateness and safety of electric outlet protectors for children.  Perceptual and Motor Skills, 84, 387-392

Mr Madden makes reference to “the matter of whether an RCD in the installation would have prevented the death”.  The Sheriff’s determination makes no mention of RCDs, but it does state that “there was nothing unsafe or incorrect” in the consumer unit.  The determination also makes clear (from the evidence of both Mr Madden and the pathologist) that death was caused by a current passing through Liam’s body from the line conductor held in one hand to the neutral conductor held in the other hand.  There is no mention of any secondary path to earth which would have caused an RCD to operate, therefore it seems reasonable to conclude that an RCD would have made no difference to the outcome.  FatallyFlawed supports the use of RCDs wherever practical, but notes that they are not a panacea and should never be regarded as completely removing the danger of electrocution.]

A sample of the press coverage of the Fatal Accident Inquiry:

The Scotsman  ”A spokeswoman for the Crown Office said the fiscal service's health and safety division had received a report on the incident. "After full and careful consideration of all the facts and circumstances, the division made recommendations to Crown counsel and the decision was taken to hold a fatal accident inquiry. This has now concluded and there are to be no further proceedings."

Daily Record  “The death of a toddler electrocuted after work was carried out in his home could have been avoided if workmen had tidied up after the job” 

BBC  “It is thought he then placed the plug in a socket in his toy room and touched the exposed live and neutral wires.”

This video shows the “Pop-Out” effect.  This socket cover has pointed pins, which do not conform to the plug standard.  When it is inserted the pins cause it to be pushed slowly back out, watch the video for the full 20 seconds and you will see this.  The socket has been cut away so that you can view the effect of the socket contacts squeezing out the  pins.  More information at FatallyFlawed Fact Sheets - not one single socket cover meets BS 1363 dimensions!
This cover is made by Lindam, we have observed the same issue with covers from Boots, Clippasafe, Emmay, IKEA, John Lewis, Kiddiproof, Masterplug, Morrisons, Mothercare, and several others.  The effect will not be seen with all sockets, it depends on the combination of non-standard pins and the particular contact method used in the socket.  (Contact methods in sockets differ markedly, but all BS 1363 sockets will accept all BS 1363 plugs.  What happens if something which does not conform to BS 1363 dimensions is inserted into a socket is entirely unpredictable.)  RETURN

Luca was 11 months old when his parents made this video demonstrating how easy it was for him to remove a socket cover.  RETURN

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