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Electricity Is Dangerous

Electricity Is Dangerous

Whenever you work with power tools or on electrical circuits there is a risk of electrical hazards, especially electrical shock. Anyone can be exposed to these hazards at home or at work. Workers are exposed to more hazards because job sites can be cluttered with tools and materials, fast-paced, and open to the weather. Risk is also higher at work because many jobs involve electric power tools.

Electrical trades workers must pay special attention to electrical hazards because they work on electrical circuits. Coming in contact with an electrical voltage can cause current to flow through the body, resulting in electrical shock and burns. Serious injury or even death may occur. As a source of energy, electricity is used without much thought about the hazards it can cause. Because electricity is a familiar part of our lives, it often is not treated with enough caution. As a result, an average of one worker is electrocuted on the job every day of every year!

Electrocution is the third leading cause of work-related deaths among 16- and 17-year-olds, after motor vehicle deaths and workplace homicide. Electrocution is the cause of 12% of all workplace deaths among young workers.

This manual will present many topics. There are four main types of electrical injuries: electrocution (death due to electrical shock), electrical shock, burns, and falls. The dangers of electricity, electrical shock, and the resulting injuries will be discussed. The various electrical hazards will be described. You will learn about the safety model, an important tool for recognizing, evaluating, and controlling hazards. Important definitions and notes are shown in the margins. Practices that will help keep you safe and free of injury are emphasized. To give you an idea of the hazards caused by electricity, case studies about real-life deaths will be described.

How is an Electrical Shock Received?

current - the movement of electrical charge

voltage - a measure of electrical force

circuit - a complete path for the flow of current

-You will receive a shock if you touch two wires at different voltages at the same time.

An electrical shock is received when electrical current passes through the body. Current will pass through the body in a variety of situations. Whenever two wires are at different voltages, current will pass between them if they are connected. Your body can connect the wires if you touch both of them at the same time. Current will pass through your body.

In most household wiring, the black wires and the red wires are at 120 volts. The white wires are at 0 volts because they are connected to ground. The connection to ground is often through a conducting ground rod driven into the earth. The connection can also be made through a buried metal water pipe. If you come in contact with an energized black wire-and you are also in contact with the neutral white wire-current will pass through your body. You will receive an electrical shock.

You can even receive a shock when you are not in contact with an electrical ground. Contact with both live wires of a 240-volt cable will deliver a shock. (This type of shock can occur because one live wire may be at +120 volts while the other is at -120 volts during an alternating current cycle-a difference of 240 volts.). You can also receive a shock from electrical components that are not grounded properly. Even contact with another person who is receiving an electrical shock may cause you to be shocked.

You will receive an electrical shock if a part of your body completes an electrical circuit by...

  • Touching a live wire and an electrical ground, or
  • Touching a live wire and another wire at a different voltage.

A 30-year-old male electrical technician was helping a company service representative test the voltage-regulating unit on a new rolling mill. While the electrical technician went to get the equipment service manual, the service representative opened the panel cover of the voltage regulator's control cabinet in preparation to trace the low-voltage wiring in question (the wiring was not color-coded). The service representative climbed onto a nearby cabinet in order to view the wires. The technician returned and began working inside the control cabinet, near exposed energized electrical conductors. The technician tugged at the low-voltage wires while the service representative tried to identify them from above. Suddenly, the representative heard the victim making a gurgling sound and looked down to see the victim shaking as though he were being shocked.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was administered to the victim about 10 minutes later. He was pronounced dead almost 2 hours later as a result of his contact with an energized electrical conductor.

To prevent an incident like this, employers should take the following steps:

  • Establish proper rules and procedures on how to access electrical control cabinets without getting hurt.
  • Make sure all employees know the importance of de-energizing (shutting off) electrical systems before performing repairs.
  • Equip voltage-regulating equipment with color-coded wiring.
  • Train workers in CPR

Dangers of Electrical Shock

The severity of injury from electrical shock depends on the amount of electrical 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 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!

A maintenance man rode 12 feet above the floor on a motorized lift to work on a 277-volt light fixture. He did not turn off the power supply to the lights. He removed the line fuse from the black wire, which he thought was the "hot" wire. But, because of a mistake in installation, it turned out that the white wire was the "hot" wire, not the black one. The black wire was neutral. He began to strip the white wire using a wire stripper in his right hand. Electricity passed from the "hot" white wire to the stripper, then into his hand and through his body, and then to ground through his left index finger. A co-worker heard a noise and saw the victim lying face-up on the lift. She immediately summoned another worker, who lowered the platform. CPR was performed, but the maintenance man could not be saved. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

You can prevent injuries and deaths by remembering the following points:

  • If you work on an electrical circuit, test to make sure that the circuit is de-energized (shut off)
  • Never attempt to handle any wires or conductors until you are absolutely positive that their electrical supply has been shut off.
  • Be sure to lock out and tag out circuits so they cannot be re-energized.
  • Always assume a conductor is dangerous.

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. Death is possible.

1,000-4,300 milliamps (1-4.3 amps)

Ventricular fibrillation (heart pumping action not rhythmic) occurs. Muscles contract; nerve damage occurs. Death is 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.

ampere (amp) - the unit used to measure current

milliampere (milliamp or mA) - 1/1,000 of an ampere

shocking current - electrical current that passes through a part of the body

- You will be hurt more if you can't let go of a tool giving a shock.

- The longer the shock, the greater the injury.

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 (as seen on pages 9 and 10).

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.

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.

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 current is eliminated. (This type of recovery is rare.)

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.

- High voltages cause additional injuries!

- Higher voltages can cause larger currents and more severe shocks.

-Some injuries from electrical shock cannot be seen.

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.

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.

The danger from electrical shock depends on...

  • the amount of the shocking current through the body,
  • the duration of the shocking current through the body, and
  • the path of the shocking current through the body.

Burns Caused by Electricity

- The greater the current, the greater the shock!

- Severity of shock depends on voltage, amperage, and resistance.

resistance - a material's ability to decrease or stop electrical current

ohm - unit of measurement for electrical resistance

- Lower resistance causes greater currents.

- Currents across the chest are very dangerous.

The most common shock-related, nonfatal injury is a burn. Burns caused by electricity may be of three types: electrical burns, arc burns, and thermal contact burns. Electrical burns can result when a person touches electrical wiring or equipment that is used or maintained improperly. Typically, such burns occur on the hands. Electrical burns are one of the most serious injuries you can receive. They need to be given immediate attention. Additionally, clothing may catch fire and a thermal burn may result from the heat of the fire.

Arc-blasts occur when powerful, high-amperage currents arc through the air. Arcing is the luminous electrical discharge that occurs when high voltages exist across a gap between conductors and current travels through the air. This situation is often caused by equipment failure due to abuse or fatigue. Temperatures as high as 35,000°F have been reached in arc-blasts.

There are three primary hazards associated with an arc-blast.

  1. Arcing gives off thermal radiation (heat) and intense light, which can cause burns. Several factors affect the degree of injury, including skin color, area of skin exposed, and type of clothing worn. Proper clothing, work distances, and overcurrent protection can reduce the risk of such a burn.
  2. A high-voltage arc can produce a considerable pressure wave blast. A person 2 feet away from a 25,000-amp arc feels a force of about 480 pounds on the front of the body. In addition, such an explosion can cause serious ear damage and memory loss due to concussion. Sometimes the pressure wave throws the victim away from the arc-blast. While this may reduce further exposure to the thermal energy, serious physical injury may result. The pressure wave can propel large objects over great distances. In some cases, the pressure wave has enough force to snap off the heads of steel bolts and knock over walls.
  3. A high-voltage arc can also cause many of the copper and aluminum components in electrical equipment to melt. These droplets of molten metal can be blasted great distances by the pressure wave. Although these droplets harden rapidly, they can still be hot enough to cause serious burns or cause ordinary clothing to catch fire, even if you are 10 feet or more away.

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 on his elbows in 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.

NEC - National Electrical Code-a comprehensive listing of practices to protect workers and equipment from electrical hazards such as fire and electrocution

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.

Electrical Fires

Electricity is one of the most common causes of fires and thermal burns in homes and workplaces. Defective or misused electrical equipment is a major cause of electrical fires. If there is a small electrical fire, be sure to use only a Class C or multipurpose (ABC) fire extinguisher, or you might make the problem worse. All fire extinguishers are marked with letter(s) that tell you the kinds of fires they can put out. Some extinguishers contain symbols, too.

-Electrical shocks cause burns.

arc-blast-explosive release of molten material from equipment caused by high-amperage arcs

arcing-the luminous electrical discharge (bright, electrical sparking) through the air that occurs when high voltages exist across a gap between conductors

The letters and symbols are explained below (including suggestions on how to remember them)

A (think: Ashes) = paper, wood, etc.

strong (think: Barrel) = flammable liquids

C (think: Circuits) = electrical fires

Here are a couple of fire extinguishers at a worksite. Can you tell what types of fires they will put out?

However, do not try to put out fires unless you have received proper training. If you are not trained, the best thing you can do is evacuate the area and call for help.

Thermal burns may result if an explosion occurs when electricity ignites an explosive mixture of material in the air. This ignition can result from the buildup of combustible vapors, gasses, or dusts. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, the NEC, and other safety standards give precise safety requirements for the operation of electrical systems and equipment in such dangerous areas. Ignition can also be caused by overheated conductors or equipment, or by normal arcing at switch contacts or in circuit breakers.

Burns are the most common injury caused by electricity. The three types of burns are . . .

  • electrical burns,
  • arc burns, and
  • thermal contact burns.

Five technicians were performing preventive maintenance on the electrical system of a railroad maintenance facility. One of the technicians was assigned to clean the lower compartment of an electrical cabinet using cleaning fluid in an aerosol can. But, he began to clean the upper compartment as well. The upper compartment was filled with live circuitry. When the cleaning spray contacted the live circuitry, a conductive path for the current was created. The current passed through the stream of fluid, into the technician's arm, and across his chest. The current caused a loud explosion. Co-workers found the victim with his clothes on fire. One worker put out the fire with an extinguisher, and another pulled the victim away from the compartment with a plastic vacuum cleaner hose. The paramedics responded in 5 minutes. Although the victim survived the shock, he died 24 hours later of burns.

This death could have been prevented if the following precautions had been taken:

  • Before doing any electrical work, de-energize all circuits and equipment, perform lock-out/tag-out, and test circuits and equipment to make sure they are de-energized.
  • The company should have trained the workers to perform their jobs safely.
  • Proper personal protective equipment (PPE) should always be used.
  • Never use aerosol spray cans around high-voltage equipment.
First Aid Fact Sheet

What Should I Do If a Co-Worker Is Shocked or Burned by Electricity?

Shut off the electrical current if the victim is still in contact with the energized circuit. While you do this, have someone else call for help. If you cannot get to the switchgear quickly, pry the victim from the circuit with something that does not conduct electricity such as dry wood. Do not touch the victim yourself if he or she is still in contact with an electrical circuit! You do not want to be a victim, too!

Do not leave the victim unless there is absolutely no other option. You should stay with the victim while Emergency Medical Services (EMS) is contacted. The caller should come back to you afterwards to verify that the call was made. If the victim is not breathing, does not have a heartbeat, or is badly injured, quick response by a team of emergency medical technicians (EMT's) or paramedics gives the best chance for survival.

Learn first aid and CPR now!

Once you know that electrical current is no longer flowing through the victim, call out to the victim to see if he or she is conscious (awake). If the victim is conscious, tell the victim not to move. It is possible for a shock victim to be seriously injured but not realize it. Quickly examine the victim for signs of major bleeding. If there is a lot of bleeding, place a cloth (such as a handkerchief or bandanna) over the wound and apply pressure. If the wound is in an arm or leg and keeps bleeding a lot, gently elevate the injured area while keeping pressure on the wound. Keep the victim warm and talk to him or her until help arrives.

If the victim is unconscious, check for signs of breathing. While you do this, move the victim as little as possible. If the victim is not breathing, someone trained in CPR should begin artificial breathing, then check to see if the victim has a pulse. Quick action is essential! To be effective, CPR must be performed within 4 minutes of the shock.

If you are not trained in CPR or first aid, now is the time to get trained-before you find yourself in this situation! Ask your instructor or supervisor how you can become certified in CPR. You also need to know the location of (1) electricity shut-offs ("kill switches"), (2) first-aid sup-plies, and (3) a telephone so you can find them quickly in an emergency.

Learn how to use fire extinguishers at work.

Source: U.S. Dept. of Labor Office of Safety & Health Administration