Skip to content Skip to footer

Opinion – Shedding light responsibly

Electrical Review Logo

Electrical contractors can not and must not take the recycling of fluorescent bulbs lightly says Terry Adby

How many electrical contractors does it take to change a light bulb? It doesn't really matter, because, with the double focus nowadays on health and safety and sustainability, the real question should be: "Do they know what's being done with the old one?"

As efficient electrical waste disposal gets both more complex and more necessary – for financial, operational and legal reasons – those involved in electrical engineering and building services would be unwise not to pay heed to the answer, a fact that one recent prosecution has shed some revealing light on.

The sustainability lobby's continued success in promoting the balancing of successful business with effective environmental protection (not to mention the wellbeing of the immediate workforce) has ever greater ramifications for the industries responsible for creating and managing the built environment.

Sustainability, above all, is an area where electrical contracting, now worth some £8bn per year, has a key role to play, with the opportunity to propose ‘low or no CO2' options. But to play its role successfully the industry must also pay close attention to the matter of the waste the ‘alternative' option creates, and how it is disposed of.  Developments such as the WEEE regulations (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive) impose legal obligations on contractors over the management of ‘waste streams' onsite, and in their subsequent disposal. It aims to "improve the environmental performance of businesses that manufacture, supply, use, recycle and recover electrical and electronic equipment" and has put the practical management of sustainability centre stage. For the electrical contractor its implications are unavoidable.

Energy efficient light bulbs (‘end-of-life gas discharge lamps') are covered by the WEEE regulations and present a particular challenge, because they contain mercury and are classified as ‘hazardous waste'. When these lamps are recycled the potential release of mercury into the air at the lamp crushing stage is a threat to both the wider environment and those in the vicinity if the right protective equipment is not in place. Each time a fluorescent bulb is crushed or broken, mercury vapour is released. If the gas is not effectively captured, that vapour will find its way into the atmosphere, the staff and others in the area.

The challenges of lamp recycling made headlines earlier this year when a Glasgow-registered company, Electrical Waste Recycling Group, and one of its directors, were fined a total of £145,000 plus costs after recycling processes being used for gas discharge lamps exposed workers to toxic fumes for a period of up to ten months.

If an electrical contractor is going to propose the likes of optimal lighting configurations or energy efficient lighting units, and if they are tempted to employ energy efficiency as a sales tool, they should be confident that the principles and practice that underpin sustainability and safety are being applied all the way through the supply chain, including what happens to the waste.

Bulb crushing on an industrial scale is a serious undertaking that comes with huge levels of environmental responsibility. Nevertheless, electrical contractors may face the prospect, perhaps even at the tendering stage, of client pressure to commit to deliver such a service. Contractors need to be completely confident of the ability of the suppliers they choose to meet their commitments. They also need to know what is being done in their name further down the supply chain.

In the case of Electrical Waste Recycling Group, it was the failure to ensure the safety of the lamp crushing phase of the recycling process at its Huddersfield plant that let down the company, their workforce and the local environment. EWRG, which runs easyWEEE, WERCS (Waste Electrical Recycling Compliance Scheme) and other recycling schemes, were contracted to handle commercial waste for several Local Authorities, which included light bulbs. While none of these clients were in any way implicated along with their supplier, the judgment in the case suggests others in the chain – such as electrical contractors – could be more vulnerable. It has already been indicated in court that putting a service out to a third party does not absolve an organisation of key responsibilities and, in respect of health & safety, the HSE – which brought the successful prosecution in the EWRG case – has said that "The client must ensure whoever carries out the work is able to do so in a way that controls risks." As this case suggests, sustainability and health and safety responsibilities often go hand in hand.

Some of the details of the EWRG judgment highlight the type of issues any business, including electrical contracting businesses, should take into account to ensure they and their suppliers comply with statutory requirements when dealing with waste. The promises of suppliers, the judge made clear, are no defence in the eyes of the law. They must be effectively monitored.

One of the judge's major criticisms was the lack of an effective risk assessment process at the EWRG recycling centre, not least because issues highlighted – such as excessively high mercury levels for no apparent reason – could have been rectified much earlier had risk assessment been in place. It is, in any case, a legal requirement for an employer in discharging their obligations to keep workers and the public safe as far as "reasonably practicable".

The HSE recommends five steps for effective risk assessment: identification of hazards; establishing who might be harmed and how; evaluation of risk and deciding on precautions; recording and implementing findings and regular review. Suppliers in a business as hazardous and regulated as lamp recycling should certainly be implementing all five. Those employing them to do the work should be equally concerned that they are.

The judge in the EWRG case also stressed the need for competent staff to be involved in the process monitoring, who understand the regulations and have the knowledge and experience to spot a breach or issue. Most successful organisations, he said, have employees who understand why risk assessment and vigilance is important for the company, staff and other groups with an interest, such as the local community. 

However, all responsibility cannot be delegated to one individual or team, he added. Senior managers need to put themselves in the position of being able to interpret and understand the implications of the results of any monitoring which is undertaken.  If they do not understand the implications of results, they cannot just ignore them. In the case of a prosecution it will be the senior managers and directors who will be held responsible. It is clear, above all, when things go awry, buck passing between organisations or individuals is not an option.

EWRG paid a heavy price because it did not read nor heed the warning signs. Those looking for lessons from its prosecution certainly should however. The safe recycling of energy efficient lamps may represent a beacon for a better future but, viewed from both an environmental or health and safety perspective, the message for electrical contractors is clear: the responsibility for a safe and sustainable approach to lighting may not end with the life of the low-energy bulb.

James Pearson

Top Stories

Stay In The Know

Get the Electrical Review Newsletter direct to your inbox, and don't miss a thing.