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Electric shocks kill more than 100 workers in the United States each year, and injure many more. Electrical tools and equipment are used every day for hundreds of tasks. When workers use these tools, do they know they are using them safely, or do they just assume that everything is fine? By knowing a little more about how electrical shocks occur and what conditions and actions cause them, cities and towns can better protect employees at work sites as well as at home.

Electricity follows the easiest path to the ground through any material that is conductive. This includes water, metal, some chemical solutions and even the human body. If a person comes into contact with an energized electrical source, his body provides the path to the ground and becomes a part of the electrical circuit. The result is a shock.

The effects of a shock depend on several factors, such as the duration of the contact, the voltage and the pathway through the body. A heavy shock can stun the muscles and stop both heart and breathing functions. A mild shock can cause serious injuries by creating deep internal burns and can trigger involuntary muscular reactions. Those reactions may cause falls that can result in bruises, fractures and breaks, or even death. Sometimes the path from the electricity to the ground is such that contact with an energized source will cause the person to be unable to let go of the source, which can result in serious nerve damage.

Working sensibly with electricity includes a combination of addressing unsafe conditions and preventing unsafe acts.

Unsafe working conditions

Unsafe working conditions result from faulty equipment like defective tools, poor insulation, improper grounding, and unguarded energized parts. Environmental concerns can also affect these unsafe working conditions. These include wet or damp locations, and locations where flammable vapors or corrosive chemicals exist.

The preventive steps to control these conditions include:

  • Always check equipment, cords and plug attachments before each use. Never assume that all is good because it was okay the last time the tool or piece of equipment was used.
  • Make sure all tools and equipment are properly grounded and used in grounded circuits. Do not use tools that have had the "third prong" grounding device removed (a commonly found hazard).
  • Never remove or modify tool guards. These are made to protect against contact with spinning blades and other parts and also protect the operator from energized parts.
  • Be aware of special precautions when working in damp or wet areas, or those where flammable or corrosive chemicals are present.

Unsafe acts

Unsafe acts involving electrical shocks usually include working around energized parts, failing to shut off power during maintenance functions, and using defective or unsafe equipment.

There are several preventive steps that can help prevent shocks:

  • Keep clear of energized parts. Be aware of the conductive materials around at all times, and keep them far away from electrical sources.
  • Don't risk a lot for a little. Using an obviously defective or unsafe tool is a shortcut no one can afford. Report any loose connections or damaged insulation, and don't be afraid to take a piece of unsafe equipment to the supervisor for removal and repair.
  • Always cut off the power when working on electrically operated equipment. A lockout/tagout procedure is preferred to make sure that employees don't accidentally make contact with energized equipment during these maintenance tasks.
  • Utilize Ground Fault Interrupter Circuits if work must be done in wet or damp environments. These devices can be wired into circuits in any location where electrical equipment is used near water or dampness, like outdoors or around swimming pools. They can be lifesavers!
  • Unplug a piece of equipment by pulling it by the plug instead of by its power cord.
  • Stay within cord voltage requirements for all tools and equipment.

The bottom line? Practice basic safety around electrical equipment and tools. Inspect equipment before using it, and report loose or damaged wiring or connections. Use grounded tools and outlets. Treat electricity with respect to avoid severe injury or death.

Reprinted with permission from the Georgia Local Government Risk Management Services Inc.