Mike Holt Enterprises Electrical News Source

Electric Shock Drowning - Update 2024

June 07, 2024
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Mike Holt

Electrical safety is our key concern and I'm always looking out for information that will help keep the industry safe. Every year Electric Shock Drowning claims several new victims. As the summer approaches and people start taking to their boats and boat docks, it's important to remind you of the hidden dangers. It's our responsibility, especially as electricians, to do our part in educating the public to help keep families safe around lakes and marinas.

James D Shafer began the research journey in 2000 to discover how electricity in the water can incapacitate and kill. He was joined by Capt. David Rifkin in 2001, and together they embarked on a 2-year research project which took them to marinas across the country. The study was funded by the US Coast Guard and administered by the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC).

The study determined the nature and behavior of electrical currents leaking into bodies of water at marinas. Send an email to qualitymarinesvcs@comcast.net to request a copy of the study. This study led to the new ground fault protection levels and installation requirements in Article 555 of the National Electric Code. Based on reports of Electric Shock Drowning-related events, it appears that the rate of losses may be on a downward trend. This is based on the improved access we have with the internet, and protection equipment now required by various codes and standards. View and download the latest report here.

Ground fault leakage into the water causes electrical gradients to form. If a person gets in one of these gradients, a current will flow through the body. Currents as low as 10ma can cause paralysis of limbs preventing a person from staying afloat, resulting in drowning (for comparison a 60-watt light bulb draws 500ma). Higher currents can cause the heart to fail directly resulting in death. There is no warning of this situation, and there is no post-mortem indication available absent any burn marks associated with direct contact with an electrical source. Witness reports (from touching the water or hearing the victim shouting they are getting shocked) often substantiate the presence of electricity on the water.

This is predominantly a low-conductivity-water phenomenon. When water gets saltier or higher in conductivity it competes for the current flow path more favorably than the body, so the current appears to go around the body. In freshwaters the body is more conductive than the water so electrical gradients can establish and act as a voltage source to drive current through the body.

There are likely hundreds or more deaths and injuries associated with electrical leakage into the water. It happens in swimming pools and spas as well. But unlike marina facilities, these are designed for swimming and have more extensive protection equipment installed, along with stricter grounding and bonding requirements. The below list are the known fatalities and “near misses” (where a person in the water gets shocked by survives). We know there many more…

If you encounter a person struggling in the water and suspect it’s an electrical condition, don’t jump in the water. Rather start securing sources of power nearby, call 911, throw a life ring to the individual, or try to push them away with a nonconductive pole (this can move them out of the electric field). We have cases where rescuers were also killed trying to help people and pets being shocked in the water. Our research shows that most accidents happen relatively close to potential sources (20 feet or less) but it depends on the source voltage and conductivity of the water among other factors discussed in the US Coast Guard study.

Electric shock drowning can also be caused by submerged irrigation pumps. These pumps require Ground Fault Circuit Interruption (GFCI) protection at their sources. Sadly, many of these are purchased at home stores and installed by homeowners using extension cords. And people are swimming right over them, within a few feet.

The bottom line is, DON’T SWIM WITHIN ABOUT 50 YARDS OF ANY KNOWN ELECTRICAL SOURCES. Marinas are required to have an annual inspection of the electrical system to include ALL connections. Conduct of these inspections is few and far between. If you are contacted about an electric shock drowning incident, take measures to get the evidence secured and a have a quick investigation to determine the cause.

My contact information is above, and I welcome any questions you may have, or reports of an ESD to document and learn more about this silent killer.
David Rifkin

2024 ESD Update Report

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