How Can You Tell How Safe a Safe Is?

An insurance surveyor conducting a routine risk assessment of a client’s premises may frequently be presented with an existing safe. The surveyor will be required to suggest an over night cash holding commensurate with its resistance level. If it is a domestic survey, they will require a suggested maximum jewellery limit. In order to establish limits, the surveyor will refer to a list or table of cash and contents limits. If the insurer is a major company it is possible that the surveyor will have an in-house list. Failing that, it is almost certain that they will refer to the Safe List prepared by the Association of Insurance Surveyors. However, it wasn’t always that easy.

Back in the 1960’s, the heyday of British safe manufacturing, there were no generally available lists so Chief Surveyors of each insurance company compiled their own. They were expected to assess the merits of scores of safes and make judgements on their likely resistance to attack. Surveyors today are expected to understand fire hazards and health and safety legislation as well as security risks, but back in the 60’s there were specialist ‘burglary surveyors’ who had in-depth knowledge of locks, alarms and safes. They focused exclusively on security matters but very few of them actually understood much about safe engineering. However, one or two became fascinated by the safe maker’s skills and less informed Chief Surveyors tended to follow their lead. Even so, limits varied widely from company to company.

Manufacturers employed Insurance Liaison Managers to call on Chief Surveyors to present technical specifications and drawings. They invited them to factories to witness in-house testing – some more knowledgeable individuals were even consulted at the drawing board stage. To some extent they even directed testing, instructing the technicians to exploit possible weaknesses. When the wine was drunk and the sandwiches eaten, they returned to their offices to make decisions on the resistance value of the safes they had seen tested. Understandably, they found this onerous. They felt they had enough to do without telling safe makers how to improve their products. What they really needed was for someone to do this for them. What they wanted was an independent list.

The European Safe Rating List was an ambitious project compiled by the European Safe Rating Committee in Holland. This body listed safes made by all principal European manufactures. However, there was no suggestion that safes were assessed by testing. Members of the European Safe Rating Committee were not named nor were their qualifications for conducting these evaluations declared. Manufacturers simply submitted drawings and specifications to the Committee who made assessments of their likely resistance levels, expressed as a cash rating in a relevant currency. The list had to be purchased and manufacturers were also required to make substantial contributions towards production costs. They also were asked to cover the hotel and travel costs of a visiting member of the European Rating Committee. Altogether, this was not very satisfactory. Manufacturers were frequently disappointed with the ratings they received and concerned by what appeared to be unexplained anomalies, not to mention the escalating costs of inclusion.

One of the leading personalities in the safe industry during the 70’s was Joshua Levy, the head of J W Levy & Son Ltd based at Holborn Circus. He was an imposing and charismatic figure standing over 6 feet tall, having had a former career as a professional sportsman. There was an excellent market for reconditioned safes and J W Levy & Son were the sector leaders. Their depot at Barkingside was stacked floor to ceiling with used safes waiting for refurbishing. Some years previously, key figures in the insurance world had suggested that Levy’s would be in an ideal position to produce an informed safe list. Josh Levy recognising a cheap but powerful marketing tool needed little encouragement. In no time at all a copy of the annually produced Levy List was in every surveyor’s briefcase.

When Josh Levy became Chairman of the John Tann Group the list was renamed the John Tann Safe List and competitors began to suspect bias – there is a story that the Managing Director of Chubb personally rang Josh Levy to complain that Chubb products had been totally omitted from the list. This implicit lack of impartiality filtered through to the insurance world and it was suggested that a more fitting body to produce a safe rating guide would be the Association of Burglary Insurance Surveyors. Their senior members were intimately involved with principal safe manufacturers, so who better to make these judgements?

For a while, the Levy List and the ABIS List ran side by side but by some sort of mystical means, there was very little variance. Naturally, every safe maker believes their product to be the best and more than one manufacturer was outraged by what they considered to be poor ratings. Letters and writs were exchanged. ABIS recognising their vulnerability to possible legal action quickly became incorporated, limiting the extent of their liability. Meanwhile, other manufacturers were insisting that their products be excluded from the Levy List and eventually Levy’s bowed to the inevitable and withdrew, leaving the field to the newly incorporated Association of Burglary Insurance Surveyors Limited.

Meanwhile, the insurance industry in general, had been calling for standards for testing and rating safes. The ill fated STAR organisation (Standards for Testing and Rating) had quickly failed but was followed some years later by the introduction of European Standard EN1143-1, a standard for testing and certifying safes. With standard cash ratings applied to resistance grades from 0 to VI, life became considerably easier – at least for a while. An additional standard EN11450 followed, covering lower grade safe-cabinets mainly aimed at the light domestic market. But a problem remained. Safes can last for several generations. If they are not attacked, they seldom wear out so there are thousands of them in use every day both in commercial and domestic premises. As they get older their ability to resist modern methods of attack diminishes and there was an urgent need for a table that listed the hundreds of untested makes and models in everyday use.

As burglary insurance surveyors were replaced by ‘composite’ surveyors a further name change was necessary; the Association of Burglary Insurance Surveyors Ltd (ABIS) became the Association of Insurance Surveyors Ltd (AiS). They recognised the continuing need for an impartial list to cover older safes made before standards were introduced. There was also a need to monitor the flood of imported safes from Asia and Eastern Europe, ensuring that they were certified by bona fide test houses applying the tests with the required level of rigour.

A Safe Committee meets regularly to consider amendments and additions to the list and advisors with specialist knowledge from outside the insurance world have been drafted in to assist. Meanwhile, as safe suppliers quoting for safes to meet of their customer’s requirements need to know the likely rating their insurer will extend, the directors of AiS recently agreed that the list should be made available to non members. Underwriters, brokers and members of the security industry can now purchase licenses to access the list.

Today the list is issued on CD and the latest edition has grown to include hundreds of free standing safes with separate listings for wall safes, underfloor safes, fire resistant safes and security cabinets. The 2010 issue now features an excellent guide to vaults and strongrooms and a wealth of information on safe identification and similar matters.

For further information on how to obtain copies of the Association of Insurance Surveyors 2010 Compendium CD including the Safe List, email

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