According to the National Safety Council, electrical incidents lead to 140,000 fires, 4,000 injuries, and 400 deaths each year. While many serious accidents involving electricity happen in the workplace, almost half of all fatal electrocutions result from consumer devices.
Accidents typically happen around old or damaged electrical equipment or wiring, and overloaded circuits and extension cords. Taking a few precautions in the home can help prevent accidents and injuries around electricity, and protect your family from harm.
Why Is Electricity Dangerous?
Electricity is dangerous for two basic reasons:
- It can cause direct injury to the human body (electrical shock and electrocution).
- It can create heat, which can ignite fires.
When skin is exposed to enough electricity, it can be severely burned—but unlike burns caused by open flame, electricity can burn deep below the skin and even reach internal organs.
Electric currents can also interrupt normal neurotransmitter signals within the body, leading to involuntary muscle contractions known as tetanic contractions (similar to the symptoms of tetanus). Tetanic contractions are especially dangerous because they can cause a person to be unable to let go the energized conductor that’s shocking them. These contractions can also affect the diaphragm muscle controlling the lungs and heart, which can lead to asphyxiation or cardiac arrest.
Preventing Electrical Accidents
Many accidents are avoidable if you take the appropriate precautions. By following a few simple safety procedures, you can protect yourself and your family from serious electrical accidents in the home.
Avoid Overloaded Circuits
The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) says that overloaded circuits are a leading cause of electrical fires. Overloaded circuits are often indicated by:
- Lights that frequently flicker, blink, or dim
- Frequently blown fuses or malfunctioning circuit breakers
- Outlets or switches that are warm or discolored
- Buzzing, crackling, or sizzling sounds from outlets or switches
- A burning odor around outlets or switches
- Mild shocks from switches, outlets, or appliances
If you notice any of these signs, stop using these outlets or switches until they’ve been checked by a licensed electrician and repaired (if necessary).
Overloaded Circuit Safety Tips
- Plug major appliances (including heaters and fans) directly into wall outlets.
- Never use an extension cord or multi-outlet converter for large appliances
- Only plug one heat-producing appliance into an outlet at a time.
- Use power strips with caution, especially during the holidays.
Use Fewer Extension Cords
Extension cords are another common culprit in electrical fires. Many people use extension cords as a convenience to reach appliances or electric devices, especially in older homes where outlets may be far apart. However, extension cords can cause problems if they are overloaded, frayed, or otherwise broken or defective.
Extension Cord Safety Tips
- Avoid overloading extension cords.
- Install additional outlets installed where you need them.
- Never plug multiple extension cords into one another.
- Make sure extension cords are properly rated for indoor or outdoor use, as appropriate, and meet the minimum power needs of the device you want to use.
- Ensure outdoor extension cords are clear of snow and standing water.
- Check cords for signs of damage before using, and periodically if they are in use for extended periods of time.
- This includes loose connections, cracked or frayed sockets, and loose or bare wires.
- Do not nail or staple extension cords to walls or baseboards, as it can damage wiring insulation.
- Never run extension cords through doorways, walls, floors or ceilings – covering cords can trap heat and create a fire hazard.
- Only use cords that are marked as approved by an independent testing laboratory.
Children and Electricity
With the boom in electrical devices over the last couple generations, there are more opportunities than ever for children to get shocked or electrocuted. It is important to both protect youngsters from the dangers of electricity, while also teaching them how to use devices safely so that they do not hurt themselves or others.
- If you have small children, consider installing tamper resistant receptacles (TRRs). Since plastic outlet covers can be easily removed, TRRs are a much safer option. These outlets are inexpensive and can be installed quickly by a qualified electrician.
- If you need to use an extension cord around children, use a cord hider device.
- Keep electrical devices out of reach of small children.
- Warn your children about the dangers of electricity and playing with electrical devices.
- Never allow kids to play near electrical transformers, power lines, or power plants.
Other Electrical Safety Tips
There are many other things to keep in mind when thinking about electrical safety. At least once a year, go through your home and check all of the outlets, wires, and appliances for signs of wear and tear or other damage.
Use the list below to help you find other potential safety issues related to electricity in and around your house.
Other Electrical Safety Tips
- Keep your distance from broken power lines.
- Don’t use cords or electrical devices with frayed wires, loose connections, or missing prongs.
- Ensure your home is equipped with ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), particularly in wet areas like the bathroom, laundry room, and around the kitchen sink.
- Never cut off the ground pin to force a three-prong plug into a wall outlet with two slots.
- Never stick anything into an outlet that doesn’t belong (e.g., fingers, paperclips, screwdrivers, etc.)
- If you notice an exposed wire or circuit, assume that it’s live until tested. Do not touch it if you’re unsure.
- Keep flammable material away from exposed electrical wiring.
- Always use light bulbs that are the correct wattage for the fixture to avoid overheating.
How to Handle Electrical Injuries
High-voltage shocks (500 volts or more) are usually related to workplace accidents, but can also happen when a person makes contact with a downed power wire. If you encounter someone who has had a high-voltage shock, use extreme caution to avoid getting shocked yourself. Call 911 immediately and alert the power company to turn off the power supply to the area. Avoid touching the injured person until you are sure the power has been turned off.
Low-voltage shocks are quite common but can still have serious consequences. If you receive a shock while pregnant, or if you haven’t had a tetanus booster in the last five years, call your doctor.
If you experience any of the following symptoms after an electrical shock, or spot these signs in someone else, seek immediate medical attention:
- Noticeable burns
- Paralysis, numbness, or tingling
- Speech, vision, or hearing problems
- Difficulty breathing
Handling Electrical Repairs
When it comes to electrical repairs, there is one simple rule: As soon as you notice a problem, get it fixed!
Before tackling electrical repairs on your own, make sure you are comfortable with your level of skill. Some electrical repairs are simple and easy if you take the right safety measures. However, if you have even the smallest bit of doubt, you should call in a professional to complete the repairs for you.
Many states and cities often have rules about what repairs require a licensed electrician. When in doubt, call your municipal codes office to find out the regulations in your area.
If you decide to take a DIY approach when making repairs, keep the following safety tips in mind before, during, and after the project.
- Turn off power to the circuit you’ll be working on.
- Always test wires before touching them to ensure they’re turned off.
- Use insulated tools designed for electrical work.
- Never use a metal ladder when working near exposed electrical wiring.
Contracting an Electrician
When it comes to more serious tasks, such as electrical additions or fixing exposed wires, you’re better off hiring a professional. If you’re not trained to work around electricity, attempting major repairs on your own can pose a serious safety hazard, even if it’s not obvious right away.
Licensed electrical contractors are well-informed about local and state electricity safety codes. They can also handle the permitting and inspection process for you. Ensuring that repairs are up to code will help keep yourself and your family safe, as well as prevent any future problems when you sell the home in the future.
If you’re looking to hire an electrician, use the checklist below to ensure you find someone who is qualified.
- Check to make sure the electrician is licensed, bonded, and insured – without insurance, you could end up responsible for any accidents that happen on the job.
- Ask about any warranty for both parts and labor (a one-year warranty is standard).
- Ask for several references, and then contact these references to ask questions about the standard of work, including how long the project took, how satisfied they were with the results, and the electrician’s work ethic.
- Check online review sites to find about more about the electrician or their company.