It’s 2018, and I’m in my first year at uni. I enter the bathrooms below the Carslaw building, and after doing my business, this wide eyed first year spots something amiss. Stuck on the electrical cable of the hand dryer was a small white tag. On the tag, you can find two dates, a testing date and a re-test date, along with the TTC (Tag Test Certificate) number of the person who tested the hand dryer. The date on the tag determines the safety of the apparatus in question. It had been a year since the dryer had been tested, and I was shaken to my core.
Tossing and turning in my bed and waking up in a cold sweat, the thought of someone using that hand dryer without realising the risk was enough to keep me up at night. Thankfully, the next time I checked, the machine had been re-tested. Perhaps some other concerned citizen had the guts to alert management of this danger or maybe some vigilante electrician crept in during the dead of night. Whatever the case, tag and test officers are often what stand between the ordinary person and certain doom.
I work at an op shop, and one of my duties is checking whether the electrical equipment donated by the public is safe to sell. The job required that I train for a day in the local RSL in a course where we learnt electrical safety, how to operate the tag and test machine, and how to coil a cable (it’s more complicated than you might think!).
The inspection at my job involves a few basic steps. First, you check for any visible signs of damage or danger, i.e. frayed or damaged wires, cracks in the exterior, twisted cords, broken black plastic on the prongs of the plug, etc. Then, you check which class it is. There’s Class A, Class B or lead, which are just extension cords. The technicals are not important, rather what separates them is that Class B items will often have a small square symbol on it, with a smaller square inside that one. We then create a circuit between our tag and test machine and the object, plugging it in and then hooking an alligator clamp to an open bit of metal. Firing up the machine and selecting the relevant class, a circuitous flow of electricity determines if it is safe for use. If this flow is disrupted in any way within the object, then it’s no good. The officer then writes up a tag providing the testing date, along with their certificate number so they are held liable for any issues, and then they test the object exactly one year later to make sure it is still up to scratch.
The life of a tag and test officer is one of repetition and monotony. Sometimes you can get lulled into a state of tiredness and boredom at the hands of routine. Many times I’ve shocked myself through little slip ups and ignorant mishaps. I don’t have enough fingers to count the times I’ve been electrocuted by the plugs on washing machines. Just recently, I was distracted by the chaotic environment of the back donation room, and simple-mindedly cut the cord of an item that was still plugged into the wall — setting off a sudden spark and shutting down the store’s power.
Sometimes danger is unavoidable, a mere part of the process. Testing items can be a game of heads or tails. I can recall one instance in which I was sitting down and testing a Nintendo 64 in my lap. Everything seemed fine with the machine, but once plugged into the wall, a miniscule buzzing sound could be heard. Suddenly, a loud bang and a puff of black fiery smoke erupted from the console. I leapt up quickly, dropping the 64 onto the ground and smashing it to bits, simultaneously dampening out the fire. I wasn’t injured, but if I had not been as careful, and simply went off what the machine told me and put it out into the shop, the next person who plugged it in might not have been so lucky.
While I’d like to say my idiocy is purely my own doing, high stakes and stressful environments can have anyone making mistakes. We work within larger apparatuses and systems, ones where the individual is forced to test numerous items as quickly as possible, with others lacking an understanding of the finer nuances of the process. The life of a tag and test worker should be relaxing and patient, one where you have all the time in the world to properly secure a safe working environment. Sadly, as with all workers, we are pushed to the limit, and often forced to rush what we do, leading to lethargy, mistakes and the boundary between life and death growing ever thinner. With all the items that pass through my hands, an immense pressure weighs on me that one day I might make a mistake that could spell the end of someone’s life, letting an item out into the shop and into the world that is wired wrong enough or isn’t protected quite right, and setting off a deadly kind of spark.
So yes, I can recognise why the hand dryer at USyd might not have been re-tested after a year. The job of the tag and test officer is misunderstood and rarely ever acknowledged. Most managers don’t consider it a necessity, but rather something that has to be done, something to be ticked off a checklist of workplace safety hazards rather than an art inofitself. If no one notices or notifies that an item has not been re-tested, managers will often try to put off hiring a tag and test officer for as long as they can. I hope that the USyd tag and test officer is doing okay, and isn’t being pushed too hard by those above trying to rush what is a delicate process requiring patience and understanding.