Electrical Safety


Electricity is a form of energy that is essential to our daily lives. However, it can be very dangerous if not treated with respect and used in a safe manner.


Electricity will always try to find the shortest and fastest way to the ground. If you happen to interrupt the flow of electricity by touching a live wire, the electricity will run through you and into the ground, giving you an electric shock that could be fatal.


Remember that electricity and water donít mix. Water is an excellent conductor of electricity. People can die if they come into contact with electricity while theyíre wet or standing on something wet.



The Electrical Panel and Circuits


Electricity enters your home from the electricity meter then runs into the electrical panel. From the main panel, it branches into separate circuits to supply different parts of the home with power. Large appliances will likely have their own circuits.


Circuits are protected by circuit breakers or fuses in the electrical panel. You use individual switches or remove individual fuses in the panel to shut off power to different circuits. The panel also has a main switch that shuts off the power to the entire home. The main switch may be a lever, fuse pullout, or circuit breaker. In case of a fire or flood, if possible, shut off the power to the entire building.


Itís a good idea to become familiar with the inside of your main panel. Mark the breakers so you know which breaker controls which circuits. You may have to experiment to find this out. Make sure you mark the main switch as well, so you can find it if you have to.



Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI)


A ground fault circuit interrupter or GFCI is designed to protect you from a dangerous shock. You usually find GFCIs in the bathroom, in the kitchen, or outside.


If youíre standing on a wet floor and using a curling iron with a faulty cord, the electricity from the cord could flow through you into the ground. You could receive a serious shock or even be killed before the fuse blows or circuit breaker shuts off, if it shuts off at all. A GFCI recognizes the misdirected current and shuts off the power almost instantly before the current can harm you.


Itís a good idea to replace any standard electrical outlets with GFCI outlets around the kitchen sink, and in bathrooms, garages, unfinished basements, and outdoor locations. Check with an electrician about installing these outlets.



General Electrical Safety


When unplugging a cord, grasp the plug at the outlet. Donít pull on the cord; you can damage it. Damage to the cord may not be obvious.


       Throw away damaged plugs or cords that are, for example, beginning to wear through.


       Never cut cords that are plugged in. Remember this when youíre using electric mowers, hedge trimmers, and other electrical appliances. Keep control of the cord.


       Donít allow extension cords to take the place of permanent wiring in your house or garage. If the cords are worn through or damaged, donít use them.


       The insulation around extension cords placed under carpets can wear out without your noticing. This can cause a fire or a shock.


       Plugging several extension or appliance cords into one outlet can be dangerous, as this can overload the circuit or cause a fire.


       Donít remove the third prong of a plug to make it fit a two-pronged outlet. This third prong is connected to the ground wire that safely redirects electricity to the ground if the cord is faulty. If you bend or remove this prong, youíre removing an important safety feature.


       Extension cords that are designed for indoor use shouldnít be used outdoors for such things as plugging in your car or Christmas lights. They canít withstand outdoor conditions and will become damaged quickly.



A man was cutting his friendís hair with some electric clippers when he suddenly collapsed. The plastic cover near the end of the clippers was broken. When the victimís wet hands came into contact with the broken area of the clippers, the shock produced put the victim into cardiac arrest.



       Electrical tape doesnít adequately repair cords. If the cord is damaged, replace it, or have it repaired by a qualified tradesperson.



In the Kitchen


Most kitchens contain major and small counter-top electrical appliances as well as a sink with running water. Here, particularly, remember that electricity and water donít mix.


A few things to keep in mind about electrical appliances:


       Only use appliances with a UL label. In Canada, look for the ULC or CSA label.


       Keep appliances in good working order. Loose plugs, worn wires and switches can be hazardous. If you suspect problems, donít use the appliance.


       Dry your hands before plugging in or unplugging appliances. Avoid touching a faucet when youíre plugging in an appliance. Metal is an excellent electrical conductor.


       NEVER stick anything into the toaster if itís plugged in. Maybe you have heard horror stories of people getting electrocuted when they tried to get a piece of toast out of the toaster without unplugging it. These stories are true; these things do happen. (Also remember that using a knife to remove the toast can damage the elements. Unplug the toaster and use the control lever to remove the toast.)


       Make sure appliance cords donít lie on the stove. The cords can melt if the burner is turned on.


       Plug your microwave into its own circuit. The cord should have three prongs. Donít put metal plates or aluminum foil into a microwave. Itís also wise not to leave the area when youíre using a microwave.


       Electrical cords weaken when theyíre kept wrapped tightly around appliances.


       Make sure appliances are cool before you put them away.


       Keep cords away from the edge of the counter. Children will reach for them and can pull over whatever is attached onto them, causing burns or other injury.

       Instead of regular electrical outlets, use GFCIs close to the sink.



A thirty-four-year-old man was electrocuted when he was repairing a microwave oven while it was still plugged into the wall outlet.



In the Bathroom


This is another area where water and electricity can easily come into contact. Many fatalities have resulted from an electrical appliance coming into contact with water.


       Make sure your bathroom has GFCIs installed.


       Avoid using curling irons, hair dryers or other appliances in the bathroom.


       Itís very dangerous to stand in a pool of water and use an electrical appliance.



A five-year-old girl was drying her hair with a hair dryer after taking a bath. She unintentionally dropped the hair dryer into the bathtub where her mother was taking a bath. The mother was electrocuted.



In the Workshop


Power tools are most often found in the workshop or garage. They are used for home repairs and building projects. Check your tools for faulty cords. Ninety percent of electrical injuries from power tools are caused by faulty cords.


Keep these safety tips in mind:


       Power tools should have a three-pronged plug or be double insulated.


       If you have to use an extension cord, make sure it has three prongs and has the capacity to run the power tool youíre using.


       Avoid picking tools up by the cord. This weakens the cord and could eventually damage it.


Before plugging in a tool, make sure its power switch is off. Unintentional startups are dangerous.



Exercise caution when using electrical tools outside. Remember particularly, water and electricity donít mix.


       Use GFCIs on your outdoor electrical sockets.

       Neveruse power tools, electric lawnmowers, hedge trimmers, or other power tools in the rain or on wet ground.

       Trees contain moisture. If wires come into contact with your trees, notify the power company. Donít try to deal with the problem yourself.

       Always be aware of overhead power lines.

       Watch for overhead wires when you use ladders, install antennas, handle irrigation pipes, or engage in any other job in which youíre carrying long pieces of wood or metal.

       Ground roof-top antennas.

       Only use extension cords that are approved for outdoor use. Indoor cords are not designed to withstand outdoor conditions.

       Keep a close eye on the cords so you donít cut them with the tool youíre using.

       Itís safer to use one long extension cord than several shorter ones.

       Never climb power poles.



A young man was using a long bar to try and retrieve his girlfriendís cat from a power pole when he contacted an electric wire. The electricity entered his hands and exited through his feet, severely damaging them. He required plastic surgery and had a very long and painful recovery.


While we were transporting him, he told me at least 15 times heíd done a stupid thing and knew better.




Electrical Emergencies


If someone does receive an electric shock, remember the following:


       Donít touch anyone who is in contact with a power source. The electricity causes the victimís muscles to contract, preventing them from letting go of the appliance or wire. If you touch the person, you can become electrocuted too.


       Shut off the main power supply or unplug the defective appliance.


       If you must remove the victim from the electrical source, use something made of a material that doesnít conduct electricity, such as wood (for example, a broom handle). Make sure your hands and clothes are dry and youíre not standing in any water.


Use extreme caution; you donít want to become a victim yourself!


       Call emergency medical services.


       Once the victim is detached from the electrical source, check the personís breathing and pulse. Perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or CPR if needed, and if youíre trained to do so.



Copyright 1997 Safety Health Publishing Inc.


Martin Lesperance is a fire fighter/paramedic and is the author of the best selling book ďI Wonít be in to Work Today Ė Preventing Injuries at Home, Work and PlayĒ. Martin delivers keynote presentations dealing with injury prevention. His talks are funny, but still have a strong underlying message. Visit his website at www.safete.com