Electricity is ubiquitous in our modern society. Our homes, our cars, and our public places are full of electricity – from the wires that run above our heads or under the street, to the devices we carry in our pockets wherever we go. Electricity is what makes the twenty-first century move, communicate, and play.
However, electricity is not without risk. According to the National Safety Council, electrical hazards are listed as the cause of 4,000 injuries, and around 300 fatalities each year.
To stay safe around electricity, you need to understand the dangers, and to take a series of precautions every time you work with electrical equipment.
Within your home, you can also mitigate risk by making sure that your electrical products are up-to-date and that you are not making some of the common safety mistakes. Technology is constantly evolving to make electrical devices safer and to provide greater protection in case of malfunction.
This guide will walk you through the steps to take to make you and your home as safe as possible when it comes to electricity. After all, it’s not possible in the twenty-first century to live without electricity.
The dangers of electric shocks are relatively intuitive to most people. If you’ve ever had even a small electric shock you will know of the potential power in most electrical items.
One of the most important parts of safety is understanding the nature of the danger.
When it comes to electricity, there are two main dangers: shocks and fires. Shocks are when electricity comes into contact with a person; fires are caused when electricity causes heat as a result of excessive resistance. Even a relatively small charge – such as a household current – can cause serious damage to homes or to people.
By understanding the most common causes of these dangers, you will be better placed to avoid the risks and to take active steps to prevent shocks or fires from taking place.
An electric shock is what happens when electric current travels through the human body. Electricity requires a circuit in order to travel; it will always take the most efficient path. Sometimes the human body can inadvertently become part of that circuit.
When someone touches an exposed wire or a piece of conductive metal connected to the circuit, the electricity can pass through the body to the ground, or between two different parts of the body. The path of the current is determined by the power of the current and where it comes into contact with your body.
The dangers of electric shocks are, first and foremost, that they can cause cardiac trauma – the current effectively shocks the heart into stopping. Further dangers come from the fact that electricity also causes the muscles to contract. This can mean that individuals are physically unable to release the wire or other electrified object they are holding.
Small electrical shocks generally have no lasting adverse effects, although even a small electrical current has the capacity to cause major damage to a body. The outcome of an electrical shock depends on the size of the current, where it passed through the body, and how long the person was exposed to the current.
If the electric shock is fatal, it is known as electrocution.
Electricity can cause fires because of the heat that is generated. Generally, where there is more resistance than expected or intended, the electricity will generate heat. Over a period of time (or very quickly in the case of extreme resistance) this heat can cause a fire.
Electrical fires can be extremely dangerous because they do not respond to water in the same manner as traditional fires. Electrical fires can also cause explosions if they come into contact with items like flammable gas or dust.
The causes of electrical fires are generally one of the following three:
Excess current running through the wire (i.e. the wires are overloaded) or situations where the safeguards (such as fuses) fail or are not in place.
Damaged, faulty, or outdated electrical outlets. These lead to poor connections, which can cause excess heath.
Damaged, faulty, or outdated connections in wiring.
In each of the above cases, there are steps you can take in advance to prevent electrical fires from taking place. You should also be aware of the warning signs of a potential electrical fire.
How to Stay Safe
The dangers of electricity are therefore relatively well defined. The next step is to take precautions to ensure that you are as safe as possible when in your home or when working with electricity.
If you are undertaking repairs to the outlets or wires within your home, then you should follow a few standard safety rules.
The most important rule of all, however, is to call a professional if there is work you are not totally sure of being able to complete safely yourself. The cost of hiring a licensed electrician is relatively low – particularly in comparison with being injured.
The US Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) makes the following recommendations when working with electricity. These should be regarded as the absolute safety basics.
In specific circumstances, you should take extra precautions, although following the below rules will ensure you stay safe in the majority of situations:
Always assume that wires are energized (at a lethal voltage). Never assume a wire is safe to touch even if there is evidence it is.
If you see a downed power line, immediately call the utility company. Never touch, or even approach a fallen wire. If you are in your vehicle and a wire falls on it, keep driving and call the emergency services. Do not allow anyone to touch your car or the wire.
If anything electrical gets wet (particularly wires, but also outlets), have a qualified professional inspect it before using it again.
Always inspect the electrical cords you are working with before beginning work; this is particularly true if the cords are wet.
Never undertake any repairs you are not qualified for.
As a general rule, you should always remain cautious when working with and around electricity. Even a small mistake can have major consequences, so you should always plan for the worst and hope for the best. Being aware and risk-averse is the safest default setting.
When you are working with electricity, you should also make sure that you have all the correct equipment to keep you safe. Although OSHA makes recommendations for those who are working in a professional capacity, their guideline for working with electricity applies even for those undertaking home repairs.
OSHA recommends the following as part of the standard Personal Protective Equipment (PPE):
Certainly, gloves and safety glasses should be a part of all homeowners’ toolbox because of their utility in a variety of situations. Insulating gloves can protect against shocks while working, and, if they are thick enough, can insulate against heat, and some trauma. Safety glasses will keep your eyes safe while you’re working, particularly if sparks or other debris are cast off by your project.
Generally, if you are taking on anything more serious than a minor home renovation project, you will need additional equipment in order to stay safe.
If you are undertaking a major project, OSHA also recommends the following:
These are obviously more serious pieces of equipment, and you would not need these for relatively minor home repairs. Again, if you are unsure of whether you will need this equipment, then it’s usually best to hire a professional to handle the work. Licensed professionals will know what equipment is required and will most likely already own it.
Home Safety Checkup
According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), you should give your home a regular check-up to ensure that there are no lingering electrical issues that may become a safety hazard. It is also recommended that you install GFCI outlets in your home. Almost half of all electrocutions would be prevented in the United States if they were present.
The ESFI recommends going through your home every six months and asking the following questions:
Are all switches and outlets working properly?
If no, have a licensed electrician check the specific outlets that aren’t working.
Are any switches or outlets warm to the touch?
Are any outlets or switches discolored?
Do any switches or outlets make crackling, buzzing, or sizzling sounds (or any improper noise)?
If the answer to any of the previous three questions is yes, do not use these until they have been checked by a licensed professional.
Do your plugs fit snugly into all outlets?
If no, you should replace the sockets.
Do you use extension cords on a regular basis?
If the answer is yes, you should remember that extension cords are designed for temporary use only.
Is any cord cracked, frayed, or damaged?
Are any cords pinched by furniture or in doors/windows?
If the answer to the previous two questions is yes, you should replace the cord and prevent ongoing cord damage.
Are cords attached to anything with nails or straps?
Are cords placed under carpets?
Are cords wrapped up while being used?
If the answer to the previous three questions is yes, you should make sure cords are open to the air so that they don’t trap heat?
An important part of any home safety checkup is knowing when to upgrade your home’s electric panel. Any scorch or rust marks could indicate that there is damage to the system, which could lead to other potential risks in the home.
Since electric panels tends to be tucked away in the basement of a home, problems can go unnoticed for long periods of time.
Make it a point to regularly inspect the electric panel in your basement or utility room to increase the chance that you catch something before it becomes a larger issue.
Keeping children safe
Anyone who has kids knows of their endless capacity for destruction. Keeping your home safe is one thing, but kids require additional steps to ensure they remain safe around electricity. If your children are old enough, talk to them about safety with electricity. The most important rules to teach kids are:
Never to put their fingers or other objects into electrical outlets.
Never to play with anything with a plug near water.
Never to put metal objects into the toaster.
Be cautious (i.e. stay well away from) power lines and substations.
Obey all warning signs.
You should also go through and childproof your home to make sure that your kids aren’t able to hurt themselves – even if the rest of your electric safety checklist is complete.
For wall outlets, the plastic insert plugs are better than leaving them unsecured. However, these plugs can present a choking hazard, and teach a child that outlets are something they can play with. Instead, use child-friendly outlet covers.
Hide extension cords so that children aren’t tempted to play with them. Similarly, all electrical devices should be well out of sight and out of reach.
All electrical items used in and around water (i.e. in the kitchen, bathroom, or wet areas in the basement) should be locked away from children.
Electricity runs our households, but should not be something that we fear. Although the ubiquity of technology may make it seem as if staying on top of safety is a futile exercise, there’s plenty you can do to stay safe with electricity.
Much of it boils down to common sense – if you are undertaking repairs, be aware and use proper precautions; you should also make sure that your fixtures, fittings, and electric panel are regularly updated.
Keeping these things in mind will mean that you avoid the vast majority of the dangers of electricity. If in doubt, you should always hire a professional to undertake any work involving electricity.
As with most of the items in your home, proper upkeep avoids a large amount of hassle. Replacing broken and damaged wiring and outlets will not only make things work better, it will also make your home safer. Avoiding upkeep actually creates more work (and certainly more danger) in the long term. With a little vigilance and a little preparation, you can make sure that you, your home, and your family remain safe around electricity.
That way you can keep buying and updating your gadgets and appliances, secure in the knowledge that you’ve done everything you can to remain safe.
Sources and Further Reading