Analysis: Engineers slam 'flawed' socket covers

E&T investigates claims that children in Britain are put at risk by a product meant to protect them.

Plastic covers are widely used to prevent young children tampering with electrical sockets, but a group of professionals argues that they are actually unsafe - and they have won the backing of television presenter Adam Hart-Davis.

The FatallyFlawed campaign traces its roots to 2002, when IET member Graham Kenyon used the discussion forums on the Institution's website to raise his concerns about the lack of regulation or testing for socket covers. Last January, Peter Munro aired the subject in the letters pages of E&T, pointing out the danger of a child inserting a cover upside-down, opening the shutters and exposing the live parts.

Munro's letter brought together a group of engineers, doctors and childcare specialists who decided the issue was important enough for them to set up a lobbying organisation.

Among them are two Edinburgh-based IET Fellows, Prof John Roulston OBE and David Peacock. "In recent years, many companies have been marketing plastic 'safety socket covers' in the misguided belief that these are an essential tool to prevent children from inserting their fingers or other objects into plug sockets," said Peacock. "It has now been established that plug-in covers are actually unsafe."

The requirement for sockets to be child-safe and include a shutter mechanism dates back to a government-commissioned study published in January 1944, when a committee convened by the IET's predecessor, the Institution of Electrical Engineers, said: "To ensure the safety of young children it is of considerable importance that the contacts of the socket-outlet should be protected by shutters or other like means, or by the inherent design of the socket outlet." This led to the publication in 1947 of British Standard 1363 for fused plugs and shuttered socket outlets.

FatallyFlawed says that the possibility of being inserted upside-down isn't the only problem associated with covers. "Only one of the covers we tested complies with the BS 1363 dimensions for the distance between pins and the periphery of the plug," said Peacock. "The two most popular designs actually allow needle-like objects to be inserted directly alongside the live pin, and this is when the covers are fully inserted into the socket."

According to FatallyFlawed, none of the covers tested complied with the line/neutral pin dimensions in BS 1363 and that this leads to unpredictable behaviour. "The contacts of some compliant sockets exert an outward force onto pins which are too short, resulting in the covers being partially ejected. The effect is usually not visible when viewed from above, but leaves a gap between the lower edge of the cover and socket faceplate, making it easy for a child to remove the cover and put it back upside down."

The group is aiming to persuade the UK Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) to ban the sale of any device intended to plug into a BS 1363 socket without the intention of making electrical contact.

So far, they have had little success, said Peacock. "BERR claims that the issue can be dealt with by Trading Standards departments under the General Product Safety Regulations, but attempts to do this have failed because inverted insertion is considered misuse, and the probes used to test accessibility are too large."

They hope that their cause will be helped with the recruitment as patron of the science and technology broadcaster Dr Adam Hart-Davis. "I normally refuse to join in campaigns but this seemed so important, and the 'safety' covers so absurd and dangerous, that I agreed," Hart-Davis told E&T.

FatallyFlawed argues that as the IEE took the original responsibility for ensuring that sockets are safe, the IET has a duty to support them. Following representations from the group, the IET referred the issue to the BSI committee responsible for BS 1363. Having investigated the issue in detail, BSI concluded that a standard is not required at this stage and that problems identified with some covers are a matter for Trading Standards. "The committee will meet again in May 2009 and welcomes any new information," a BSI spokesperson told E&T.

FatallyFlawed claims to have won a small victory, however, by persuading education regulator Ofsted to reverse its policy of requiring nurseries and childminders to use socket covers. It is disappointed that rather than warning carers about the risks associated with covers, Ofsted refers them to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), which declined to take any action beyond stating that covers are unnecessary.

A RoSPA spokesman said the society has to give priority to issues where it can have the greatest impact in terms of saving lives and reducing injuries. As BS 1363 is among the safest designs in Europe it doesn't recommend additional covers, but has seen no evidence to suggest that their use is causing injuries to children.

RoSPA actively discourages the use of decorated socket covers, but the organisation acknowledges that plain socket covers "can stop inquisitive youngsters from plugging in electrical products which could cause serious burns".

Clippasafe, one of the leading brands, has sold more than 4.5 million covers since the year 2000 and, said managing director Roger Cheetham, received no customer complaints.

Cheetham argues that the shutter in a normal three-pin socket is not inherently safe because a child could insert a small object into the earth aperture and thereby expose the live terminals. "Our socket covers can only be removed by using the earth pin of a plug," he said. "It is much easier for a child to remove a plug itself and invert it, so it is therefore far safer to cover up the area."

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