Pretty much everyone over the age of 5 knows never to stick their fingers in an outlet or poke a fork into a toaster, but beyond that, most of us don’t really expect to suffer a serious electrical shock at home. But there’s no doubt those risks exist, and it’s important to be aware of electrical hazards both indoors and outside.
Each year, more than 300 Americans die by electrocution, while thousands more experience nonfatal electric shock and burn injuries, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, a nonprofit organization in Rosslyn, VA, that promotes electrical safety at home and in the workplace.
Here are some of the most common electrical hazards and how to prevent them.
Understand electrical shock versus electrocution
It’s common to use these terms interchangeably, but there is a life-and-death difference between them, says ESFI President Brett Brenner.
“When you say ‘electrocuted,’ that means it’s fatal,” explains Brenner. “But you can be shocked or burned in many ways. People don’t realize that electricity is uniquely dangerous; it can really hurt you.”
Levels of shock depend on the energy power, he adds. For instance, 120-volt outlets are the norm in North America. If you touch a wire, it will cause a tingling sensation in your hand, but it probably won’t hurt you. But with 240 volts or higher, the situation can become more dangerous.
“Depending on how much energy is in the environment or the device you’re touching, that will cause some people’s bodies to lock up,” Brenner says. “Electricity can stop your heart or mess with signals to your brain. You can’t let go, because you can’t control your muscles anymore. That’s usually when you get electrocuted.”
Don’t overload or overuse extension cords
Extension cords are convenient, but many homeowners use them improperly, says Brenner.
“People think they last forever—they plug them in and forget them. But extension cords are only intended for temporary use, which means under 30 days,” cautions Brenner.
Depending on the amount of energy used, extension cords can heat up and deteriorate, he adds, so avoid running them behind sofas, underneath beds, or, worse, inside walls—which can be a fire hazard if you drive a nail through drywall and accidentally pierce that wire.
Power strips, on the other hand, don’t typically have a long cord and are more robust, says Brenner. But that doesn’t mean you can run multiple extension cords off a power strip and leave that plugged in, he warns.
Bradley Beck, owner of Alto Home Inspection in Buffalo, NY, recently found three 20-foot extension cords strung together and hard-wired to an electric garage door opener.
“They’d mounted it to the ceiling and plugged into an outlet. Another homeowner did the same thing for a wood-burning stove with a fan built in,” says Beck.
Bottom line: If you need another outlet, call a licensed electrician and get one permanently wired and installed properly.
Know the difference between grounded and ungrounded outlets
One of the most common electrical hazards Beck sees are ungrounded outlets. Grounding wires protects us from getting shocked.
“Ungrounded outlets pose a big risk, because certain equipment such as lamps can have wiring problems. If they do, the human body acts as a path for electricity instead of the grounding wire,” he explains.
Beck also finds three-prong outlets that aren’t actually grounded—a modern electrical plate hides the old setup behind the wall. He suggests spending a few dollars on an outlet tester, which can be found at most home centers.
“They have indicators that tell you if the outlet is wired correctly, and if there’s an open ground or missing ground,” says Beck.
You may have noticed that your bathroom or kitchen outlets near the sink have ground-fault circuit interrupters, or GFCIs. These outlets detect and prevent excess voltage by shutting themselves down. GFCIs can wear out over time, and Beck notes that most outlet testers also have a GFCI testing function.
Save your DIY skills for something else
Beck has seen lots of shoddy electrical repairs—often done by DIYers or local handymen—including reverse outlet wiring, where red and black wires were crossed instead of being paired.
“That could lead to metal objects or lamps being electrified, which is super dangerous,” says Beck.
Or you might think you’re being safe when installing a ceiling fan, but accidents can happen. If you switch off a breaker, tell everyone in your household so that nobody turns it back on, which can lead to your getting shocked.
And if you live in an older home with two-prong electrical outlets, don’t assume you can snap off the grounding pin from a three-prong plug.
“People assume that because you can plug it in, you should, and that’s just not the case,” says Brenner.
That’s true even if you’ve done it before.
“If you plug something into the wall and nothing’s ever happened, don’t assume that the next time you do it, nothing’s going to happen again,” he says.
One chore you can (and should) handle: replacing missing covers on electrical panels, outlets, and switches.
“When covers are missing, that invites little fingers to get in there, and that’s a big problem. It’s an easy and cheap fix to replace them,” says Beck.
Be extra careful around overhead power lines outside
Overhead power lines might be out of sight, but keep them top of mind so you don’t accidentally pull one down.
“When carrying things like ladders, people could run into power lines,” explains Brenner. “If you do, you’re dealing with a lot of energy and, usually, it’s a fatal electrocution.”
If you hear a loud noise outside and smell smoke, or you suspect wires have fallen down on your property, don’t investigate yourself; call the utility or fire department. Simply walking through your lawn near a live wire can be deadly, says Brenner.
“With power lines, if you are within 10 feet or so, the electricity can actually jump to you. Electricity is looking for the easiest path to ground possible, and you become the conduit,” he explains.
Even touching someone while they’re in contact with a live wire can electrocute you, he adds. “Electricity is unique because you can’t smell it, taste it, or see it, so it’s typical for one person to unfortunately get killed, and then the second person coming into help also gets hurt or killed.”
And don’t ever handle the fat service entrance cable that goes from your electric meter to the utility, cautions Beck.
“Those were used for homes built in the 1960s and early ’70s, and were made of cloth,” he explains. “Cables of that era wear down, and I’ve seen the conductors inside of the cable exposed and visible. If someone were to grab it, they could potentially be shocked.”
Use common sense with outdoor electrical use
Often when the weather is nice, people want to be able to use electricity outside, for lighting and other amenities. But if anything, there are more risks.
“If you run an extension cord outside that comes in contact with the water, you can get what’s called ‘electrical shock drowning.’ There’s a current in the water, so when you jump in, your body locks up. You can’t swim, and you can drown,” says Brenner.
Beck cautions against another huge no-no.
“I’ve seen very long chains of extension cords for decorative lights on patios and decks—even over a pool or hot tub, which is megadangerous,” he says.
Just as you would indoors, make sure to have a licensed electrician set up proper electrical outlets for your outdoor needs.
Be on the lookout for abandoned wiring
Beck has seen live wires sticking out of a house that were still connected to a breaker, or forgotten wires sticking out of the ground from a dismantled hot tub or outdoor lights.
Take a look around the perimeter of your home, and if you see any abandoned wiring, call in an electrician to take care of it. Never touch it yourself, says Beck.
Many electrical injuries and deaths can be prevented by following basic safety practices. The ESFI has many helpful resources and checklists that will help homeowners understand how to use electricity properly.
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