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Electricity is a powerful phenomenon that can be as beautiful and intriguing as it is dangerous. From the time we are children, we are ingrained with adages and warnings about electricity. Sometimes we followed the advise of our elders…more often we did not. Even when all aspects of safety were adhered to, accidents could happen. At any rate, electrical safety is an important issue for everyone from the electrician who works with this power every day to the layman just looking to illuminate his house.
It is absolutely impossible to detail every situation where a human may become accidentally electrocuted and therefore it is impossible to document every preventative measure people must take to avoid electrocution. However, understanding the very basics of electricity may arm people with enough common sense to prevent many dangerous situations from ever taking place.
At its most basic level, electricity needs two things to function: a power source and a conductor to move it from place to place. The power can come from a variety of places ranging from lightning to a simple alkaline battery. Of course, the one most familiar to the common person is the outlet in his home, able to power everything from the television to the blender. The power source is fairly benign if left alone. However, if a conductor is applied to the power source, the electricity becomes mobile and will follow its conductor.
Most substances in the world are considered to be conductors—a substance that will transfer or move a sustained electrical charge—or insulators, which will not conduct electricity because they have no mobile charges. Good conductors will efficiently move electricity from place to place, a common example being metallic wire. A wire connects your lamp to the outlet, which is in turn connected to a larger power supply by more wires. Other examples of conductors include silver and gold, most liquids, and of course…people.
Insulators are the opposite of conductors. They have no mobile charges and therefore resist any electrical charge trying to flow through them. This resistance usually creates some degree of heat, but does not constitute an electric shock. Rubber, plastic and cold glass are all great examples of insulators. Wires are usually covered with plastic coatings to insulate the electric current they carry.
Many things are able to carry an electrical charge, but poorly. These are called semiconductors and are usually little to worry about. They are inefficient and slow and will not be terribly dangerous. The best example is the silicone used in modern electronics.
Understanding what substances do and do not mix with electricity is a good start in understanding what NOT to do in questionable situations. If your electrical fence is shorting out, fixing it with a metal pliers will probably garner you a good shock. If you see a bald spot in your vacuum cleaner cord, you understand why it is important to replace it or cover it with special electrical tape.
Electrocution in the workplace is the most common cause of electrical death in the United States. Over 400 people die each year on their job sites from accidental electrocution. Another 500 people die in house fires caused by electricity. Understanding the dangers and taking some simple safeguards can prevent many unwanted shocks, or even deaths.
In the workplace, especially, it is very easy to become engrossed in a job and forget some simple safety rules. Work sites should be powered down before beginning construction or excavation. The lockout/tagout rule should be applied. The source of the electricity must be powered down, and then locked to insure no accidental reactivation.
If a wire is visible, test before you touch. A thirty-second test can save lives. If you absolutely must test a circuit with the naked hand instead of a tool, use the back of the hand. Touching with the fingertips can have very negative consequences. If the connection is live, it is possible for electrical shocks to stimulate the muscles of the hand, causing the fist to close and making it very difficult to reopen the hand and let go of the electrifying agent. Workers should make certain their site has been inspected and the appropriate permits have been attained. These documents will not be issued if there are electrical hazards.
Wearing proper personal equipment can also prevent injury. Rings and watches should be removed from fingers and wrists when working with electricity, since gold and silver are excellent electrical conductors. Clothing should be comfortable but snug to prevent entanglement in wires. Goggles and earplugs, as well as a hard hat should be worn. Work boots with a thick sole can provide some insulation
Fortunately for people, the number of annual electrocutions is actually on the decline. With so many more people using electricity, this would seem ironic, but the fact remains that new technologies are constantly being developed to help prevent shocks in everyday situations.
RCDs are devices that are installed in most homes and work places to help make using electricity safer. RCD stands for Residual Current Device. There are many types of such devices, but most function on roughly the same idea. They are designed to disconnect or disrupt the power source to an outlet if an imbalance in the circuitry is detected. Basically, the device understands what path the current is meant to take. If the current takes a different path (known as leakage) because, for example, a human being is touching a live component and serving as a conductor, the device recognizes this change instantly and trips a safety switch…interrupting the power supply and preventing a lethal shock.
Probably the most common type of this device is the GFI or GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter). This is commonly installed in bathrooms and kitchens or anywhere where there is the possibility of water splashing into or near an electrical outlet. As water is a good electrical conductor, the two entities do not mix, but the installation of GFIs (now part of most standard building codes) has saved many lives.
AFCIs (arc fault circuit interrupters) are very similar, but are designed to prevent fires from faulty arcing in electrical wiring. A common cause of arcing is loose wiring, but any number of mistakes can create an arc, usually inside interior walls or electrical boxes and away from human sight. The AFCI will trip, similar to the GFCI, not only stopping the arc, but also alerting people to a potential problem. It is estimated that AFCIs could prevent up to 70 percent of all electrical house fires.
There are some instances where being safe for an adult is simply not good enough. With so many protective devices in place, most modern homes are safe for adults, who are able to use their common sense to prevent further injuries. But curious babies and unknowing animals do not fall into this category. Fortunately, technology has been adapted to provide an extra layer of security for households with children or creatures.
Plug-ins for electrical outlets are usually located about twelve inches from the floor of a home…the perfect height to draw the attention of a curious creeping baby. Cats see cords and wires as toys no different than their favorite ball of string. These things are potentially very dangerous to the unknowing.
To guard against accidental shock, several simple rules can be followed. First, unplug any device that is not in use. A teething baby will find the soft plastic of a lamp wire soothing, but it cannot harm the child if it is not connected to a power source. If possible, keep cords out of sight, hidden behind furniture. Wrap up the loose portion of the cord so that it is left neat and less noticeable. Check your cords for frays and damages on a regular basis. Make sure to test your GFCIs to make certain they are working properly. Finally, pay attention. Watch your child and pets and watch and listen to the devices in your home. If your lights flicker or you hear clicks or buzzes often, something is wrong. Don’t take the chance. Have your wiring inspected.
There are also products that you can purchase to help prevent electrical hazards in your home. Some very simple guards can block babies and pets from ever getting to cords or areas of danger. There are special plates that can be placed over outlet covers that force the user to slide the cover over in order to access the power supply. This makes it difficult for Baby to put a toy into the outlet. Special plastic plugs can also be inserted into unused outlets, but Baby may be able to pull them out, creating a choking hazard. Safety extenders are applied to the ends of a cord’s plug. If the cord is not plugged all the way into an outlet, these plastic insulators prevent shocks. One can also purchase entire covers that fit over an electrical outlet that is in use, preventing a child from removing the cord from the wall, or accessing the outlet.
Stray Voltage is a term that describes a situation where two objects have an unwanted electrical current running between them. Often times, the leakage is so slight from a grounded device to another object, that it is never noticed. However, there are areas where stray voltage is a real issue. Anyplace where electrical equipment comes into direct contact with a human or animal is a potential hazard for stray voltage. Moisture makes situations more dangerous. Some examples include dairy milking machines, swimming pool pumps and heaters, and hospital surgeries.
Stray voltage can be caused by a number of things. If an object, especially one made of metal or another good conductor, is located very near a conductor of heavy alternating current, there is a chance of induced current flowing into the object. This is similar to a magnetic field, and can be eliminated by intelligently locating heavy current circuits.
Sometimes, leakage can occur, just like inside the wiring of a home, when a normally well-insulated power line fails. Damage to a power line from any number of factors (any thing from age and corrosion to storms) can expose wiring and cause enough leakage to account for stray voltage. All the lines are grounded, and if the electricity cannot complete its circuit via the faulty wiring, it will follow the grounding rods to the earth, which can create potentially dangerous situations.
The two main areas of public interest in stray voltage are currently large metropolitan areas and dairy farming. New York City, for example, with its massive population and ancient power lines, has seen a breakdown in the electrical infrastructure. It has seen as many as 1215 deaths from stray voltage (2005) in a single year and must work constantly to upgrade power lines and check grounds and wiring for safety. Not all stray voltage issues resulted in death. Mild shocks, joint pain and migraine headaches have all been attributed to electrical issues.
In the dairy industry, stray voltage can also become a factor. The agriculture business uses a great deal of electricity on a daily basis, and heavy power lines run to most farms. Often, especially on old family farms, equipment and grounds are old and corroded. Cattle are in direct contact with electrical equipment during milking, with udder washes and the cows’ actual milk both serving as electrical conductors for stray voltage during the milking process. They are also at risk in the pasture as their hooves contact the ground where the earth currents run. Farms with even weak stray voltage currents are likely to see milk production and cow health decline. Unexplained foot problems and high somatic cell counts (an indicator of milk quality) are two possible indicators of stray voltage, but birth defects, illness and death have also occurred.
It is important to have any area with potential stray voltage checked at least once each year. New laws give the power company or cooperative time to respond to your request and have a deadline to make necessary repairs, insuring the safety of you or your animals.
Despite the best-laid plans of mice and men, sometimes nature will obliterate any and all efforts at safety. Lightning is nature’s own power supply and can have devastating effects on people and property. While it is impossible to control lightning, it is possible to take steps to remain safe from a possible strike.
First of all, get in doors. If thunder is audible, there is lightning somewhere, even if it can’t be seen. Lightning and thunder go hand in hand, and one is not present without the other. Of the twenty-eight American people who were killed by lightning in 2008, all twenty-eight of them were outside. It gives new meaning to the adage: “When thunder roars, go indoors.”
Avoiding potentially electrifying situations is important during a thunderstorm. Do not take shelter beneath a tree, which is likely one of the taller structures in an area and a great natural lightning rod to draw the current. About one-third of all people who are struck by lightning are standing beneath a tree. Water, as we know is a great conductor of electricity. Over one-fourth of lightning victims are in or near water when they are struck. Avoid wide-open fields where your body will become the tallest structure, and hence the lightning rod. Large metal objects, such as farm machinery, pole sheds or athletic stadiums can also draw lightning.
People cannot control lightning, but they can attempt to combat its effects. The most simplistic defense against lightning is the lightning rod. A lightning rod is a metal rod mounted to the top of a building and connected to the ground via a wire. Ideally, if lightning strikes in the direction of a building, it will be drawn to the elevated metal rod, and its charge will be safely conducted to the ground through the wire as opposed to striking and damaging the house or structure. Lightning rods are generally mounted on the highest part of a structure, such as the steeple of a church or the cupola of a barn.
In the event that a shock does occur, understanding some basic first aid could mean the difference between a frightening incident and death. First of all it is important to know that (assuming he is not still grasping a wire) a person who has received a shock no longer carries an electrical charge and is perfectly safe to handle and help.
In the case of severe shock followed by lack of breathing, begin standard CPR immediately. Finding for a pulse or signs of circulation are both very difficult in shock victims and it can waste valuable time. It has been concluded that inappropriate or unnecessary chest compressions are not nearly as dangerous or life threatening as waiting to determine if there is or is not a heartbeat. If in doubt, CPR should be administered and bad CPR is better than none.
Of course, this is a worst-case scenario, but other injuries besides cardiac arrest can and are likely to occur. Check for signs of shock, such as cool or clammy skin or non-responsive eyes. Have the person lie down and loosen his clothing. Cover him with a blanket and try to position him so his legs are elevated above his trunk.
Probably the most common medical occurrence that comes with electric shock is an electrical burn. These can go well beneath the surface of the skin and can also be visible to the eye. When covering an electrical burn, be certain to use an actual bandage or gauze as opposed to a towel or blanket. These materials have fibers that will enter and infect the wound.
Seizures, dehydration, kidney failure, tissue death and psychological traumas can also manifest at later times following a shock. Be sure to call 911 and/or see a doctor for a complete examination following any sort of electrical injury.
If common safety rules go unheeded, it is very likely that a severe injury or death will occur. Foolish mistakes with electricity are deadly, not silly, and often there is no second chance to correct an error.