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Course 715 - Electrical Safety for Technicians & Supervisors

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Safety guides and audits to make your job as a safety professional easier

The Dangers of Electrical Shock

Severity of Electrical Shock

The severity of injury from electrical shock depends on the amount of electrical amperage (current) and the length of time the current passes through the body. For example, 1/10 of an ampere (amp) of electricity going through the body for just 2 seconds is enough to cause death.

The amount of internal current a person can withstand and still be able to control the muscles of the arm and hand can be less than 10 milliamperes (milliamps or mA).

Currents above 10 mA can paralyze or "freeze" muscles. When this "freezing" happens, a person is no longer able to release a tool, wire, or other object. In fact, the electrified object may be held even more tightly, resulting in longer exposure to the shocking current. For this reason, hand-held tools that give a shock can be very dangerous.

If you can't let go of the tool, current continues through your body for a longer time, which can lead to respiratory paralysis (the muscles that control breathing cannot move). You stop breathing for a period of time.

People have stopped breathing when shocked with currents from voltages as low as 49 volts. Usually, it takes about 30 mA of current to cause respiratory paralysis.

Currents greater than 75 mA may cause ventricular fibrillation (very rapid, ineffective heartbeat). This condition will cause death within a few minutes unless a special device called a defibrillator is used to save the victim. Heart paralysis occurs at 4 amps, which means the heart does not pump at all. Tissue is burned with currents greater than 5 amps.

The table in module 2 section 2 shows what usually happens for a range of currents (lasting one second) at typical household voltages. Longer exposure times increase the danger to the shock victim. For example, a current of 100 mA applied for 3 seconds is as dangerous as a current of 900 mA applied for a fraction of a second (0.03 seconds).

The muscle structure of the person also makes a difference. People with less muscle tissue are typically affected at lower current levels. Even low voltages can be extremely dangerous because the degree of injury depends not only on the amount of current but also on the length of time the body is in contact with the circuit.

LOW VOLTAGE DOES NOT MEAN LOW HAZARD!

Effects of Electrical Current* on the Body

Current Reaction
1 milliamp Just a faint tingle.
5 milliamps Slight shock felt. Disturbing, but not painful. Most people can "let go." However, strong involuntary movements can cause injuries.
6-25 milliamps (women)†
9-30 milliamps (men)
Painful shock. Muscular control is lost. This is the range where "freezing currents" start. It may not be possible to "let go."
50-150 milliamps Extremely painful shock, respiratory arrest (breathing stops), severe muscle contractions. Flexor muscles may cause holding on; extensor muscles may cause intense pushing away. Heart fibrillation possible. Death is possible.
1,000-4,300 milliamps (1-4.3 amps) Rhythmic pumping action of the heart ceases. Muscular contraction and nerve damage occur; death likely.
10,000 milliamps (10 amps) Cardiac arrest and severe burns occur. Death is probable.
15,000 milliamps (15 amps) Lowest overcurrent at which a typical fuse or circuit breaker opens a circuit!

*Effects are for voltages less than about 600 volts. Higher voltages also cause severe burns.
†Differences in muscle and fat content affect the severity of shock.

High Voltage

High Voltage - Greater than 600V.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Electrical Safety Guidelines classify high voltage as over 600 volts. Also, OSHA classifies any use of electrical service over 600 volts as high voltage.

Sometimes high voltages lead to additional injuries. High voltages can cause violent muscular contractions. You may lose your balance and fall, which can cause injury or even death if you fall into machinery that can crush you. High voltages can also cause severe burns.

At 600 volts, the current through the body may be as great as 4 amps, causing damage to internal organs such as the heart. High voltages also produce burns. In addition, internal blood vessels may clot. Nerves in the area of the contact point may be damaged. Muscle contractions may cause bone fractures from either the contractions themselves or from falls.

Entrance Wound: High resistance of skin transforms electrical energy into heat, which produces burns around the entrance point (dark spot in center of wound). This man was lucky, the current narrowly missed his spinal cord.

High Voltage (Continued)

There have been cases where an arm or leg is severely burned by high-voltage electrical current to the point of coming off, and the victim is not electrocuted. In these cases, the current passes through only a part of the limb before it goes out of the body and into another conductor. Therefore, the current does not go through the chest area and may not cause death, even though the victim is severely disfigured. If the current does go through the chest, the person will almost surely be electrocuted. A large number of serious electrical injuries involve current passing from the hands to the feet. Such a path involves both the heart and lungs. This type of shock is often fatal.

A severe shock can cause much more damage to the body than is visible. A person may suffer internal bleeding and destruction of tissues, nerves, and muscles. Sometimes the hidden injuries caused by electrical shock result in a delayed death. Shock is often only the beginning of a chain of events. Even if the electrical current is too small to cause injury, your reaction to the shock may cause you to fall, resulting in bruises, broken bones, or even death.

electrical burn on hand and arm
Exit Wound: Current flows through the body from the entrance point, until finally exiting where the body is closest to the ground. This foot suffered massive internal injuries, which weren't readily visible, and had to be amputated a few days later.

The length of time of the shock greatly affects the amount of injury. If the shock is short in duration, it may only be painful. A longer shock (lasting a few seconds) could be fatal if the level of current is high enough to cause the heart to go into ventricular fibrillation. This is not much current when you realize that a small power drill uses 30 times as much current as what will kill. At relatively high currents, death is certain if the shock is long enough. However, if the shock is short and the heart has not been damaged, a normal heartbeat may resume if contact with the electrical is eliminated. (This type of recovery is rare.)

Current Amounts

Power drills use 30 times as much current as what will kill

The amount of current passing through the body also affects the severity of an electrical shock. Greater voltages produce greater currents. So, there is greater danger from higher voltages. Resistance hinders current. The lower the resistance (or impedance in AC circuits), the greater the current will be.

Dry skin may have a resistance of 100,000 ohms or more. Wet skin may have a resistance of only 1,000 ohms. Wet working conditions or broken skin will drastically reduce resistance. The low resistance of wet skin allows current to pass into the body more easily and give a greater shock. When more force is applied to the contact point or when the contact area is larger, the resistance is lower, causing stronger shocks.

Electrical Currents

The path of the electrical current through the body affects the severity of the shock. Currents through the heart or nervous system are most dangerous. If you contact a live wire with your head, your nervous system will be damaged. Contacting a live electrical part with one hand-while you are grounded at the other side of your body-will cause electrical current to pass across your chest, possibly injuring your heart and lungs.

Real-Life Example

A male service technician arrived at a customer’s house to perform pre-winter maintenance on an oil furnace. The customer then left the house and returned 90 minutes later. She noticed the service truck was still in the driveway. After 2 more hours, the customer entered the crawl space with a flashlight to look for the technician but could not see him. She then called the owner of the company, who came to the house. He searched the crawl space and found the technician on his stomach, leaning his elbows on the front of the furnace.

The assistant county coroner was called and pronounced the technician dead at the scene. The victim had electrical burns on his scalp and right elbow. After the incident, an electrician inspected the site. A toggle switch that supposedly controlled electrical power to the furnace was in the “off” position. The electrician described the wiring as “haphazard and confusing.”

Two weeks later, the county electrical inspector performed another inspection. He discovered that incorrect wiring of the toggle switch allowed power to flow to the furnace even when the switch was in the “off” position. The owner of the company stated that the victim was a very thorough worker. Perhaps the victim performed more maintenance on the furnace than previous technicians, exposing himself to the electrical hazard.

This death could have been prevented!

  • The victim should have tested the circuit to make sure it was de-energized.
  • Employers should provide workers with appropriate equipment and training. Using safety equipment should be a requirement of the job. In this case, a simple circuit tester may have saved the victim’s life.
  • Residential wiring should satisfy the National Electrical Code (NEC). Although the NEC is not retroactive, all homeowners should make sure their systems are safe.

Videos

This Puget Sound Energy video does a great job in explaining the hazards of downed powerlines. Remember, if you come in contact with a downed power line, stay clear and call 911 immediately. Do not touch them or the wire.

This video explains the hazards of electricity in the workplace. It also shows some of the hazards that are present in nearly every workplace, and even in homes. Those hazards are electrical cords that are exposed to traffic.

Instructions

Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. The severity of injury from electrical shock depends on which two factors below?

2. People have stopped breathing when shocked with currents from voltages as low as _____ volts.

3. An electrical current of _____ can cause extremely painful shock, respiratory arrest (breathing stops), severe muscle contractions.

4. At _____ volts, the current through the body may be as great as 4 amps, causing damage to internal organs such as the heart.

5. Which of the following will result in the lowest resistance and greater risk of injury when shocked?


Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.