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
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.
How it all works
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.
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
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
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.
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
usefulness of modern technology
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
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.
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.
Babies and animals
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
- A 23-year-old
Pennsylvania construction worker was electrocuted to death by placing
electric clips on his nipple piercings, running a powerful current through
his nipples to his heart.
- A 37-year-old man
was charged with involuntary manslaughter when his wife was found dead
following some lethal sex play. Two alligator clips, connected to a stripped
electrical cord, were attached to her breasts.
- In 1753 Russian
Professor Georg Wilhelm Richman was the first person to be killed performing
experiments with electricity when he as struck by a ball of globe lightning
- Stone Crows
guitarist, Leslie Harvey, was electrocuted on stage by a faulty microphone
- Yardbirds singer
Keith Relf died in 1976 while practicing his electric guitar with an
improperly grounded amplifier
- Claude Francois
died trying to change a light bulb while standing on his bathtub, which was
full of water
- In 1998 every
single player on the Basanga Soccer team was killed by a bolt of fork
lightning during a match against Bena Tshadi in the Congo
- 18 Americans die
every year from submersing handheld hair dryers in water
- In 2008, a six
year old Texas girl fell onto an electric fence intended to restrain rabbits
and chickens in a muddy area. She was electrocuted to death when the safety
breaker did not trip.
Of course, electricity
has become an entity that few people care to live without. If some common sense
rules are followed, and safety measures are taken, it can be a valuable tool for
most. It is a deadly force, however, to those who deny its power.
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