Posted by Steven Ellis

As the dog days of summer arrive, we are at the height of sunscreen, popsicle, and watersport season. Everyone has a different way to cool off from the August sun, but jumping into a body of water may be the most tempting escape from the heat and humidity. Despite the refreshment that a cannon-ball into cool water promises, there can be a danger lurking beneath the surface of these waters that is unseen and often unpredictable.

Earlier this summer, a horrific story came out of Priceville, Alabama where a fifteen-year-old cheerleader died from electric shock drowning while swimming in the lake behind her house. One minute, the girl was swimming happily and the next, she appeared to be dragged beneath the water. Her family explained the rusty wiring on the dock was sending deadly, invisible electric currents into the water. When her father and brother jumped in to save her, they were nearly killed themselves when the electrical current shot through their bodies, locking up their muscles and halting their rescue efforts (Osunsami, 2016). This story hit us hard: The Johnsons are a friend of the ORR family.

Around the office, so much of the daily conversation revolves around workplace safety and preventing worker injuries. There is a focus on building a culture of safety awareness around factories, manufacturing plants, and other job sites around the country. Yet, building a true culture of safety means developing a mindset that doesn’t just stay in the office. Hazards are present outside of the workplace and being equipped and empowered to recognize them can prevent tragedy long after clocking out for the day. This includes being alert to the electrical hazards that swimmers in pools and near docks and marinas may be exposed to.

 A Preventable Hazard

Pick up any of your household appliances and you’ll often see an attached sticker that warns against using it close to water. This same principle applies to extension cords, pumps, and anything that is powered by electricity at your dock, boat, or swimming pool. Using electrical systems designed, manufactured, installed, and maintained for wet conditions is absolutely essential to preventing a tragic situation for swimmers of any age.   According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, the biggest risks of electrocution in a swimming pool come from faulty underwater lighting, aging electrical wiring, and electrical devices such as sump pumps, power washers, vacuums and extension cords that are not grounded.

Electricity and electrical devices are commonly used at most pools, docks, around boats, and at marinas.  According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, electric shock drowning “occurs when a body makes contact with electrified water and becomes a conductor of electricity” (ESFI, 2016). This leads to possible loss of all muscle control, irregular heartbeat, and in the worst cases, death by electrical shock.

Test electrical circuits near pools, docks, boats and marinas with circuits testers to determine if electrical circuits are functioning properly or if electrical current is leaking from them.  Remember that these current leak tests must be performed with all of the electrical appliances (such as pumps, lights, or refrigerators) fully operating.  Only allow certified electricians familiar with National Electric Codes (NEC) and American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) codes to perform electrical work and repairs.

 Staying Safe In The Water

While not a leading cause of deaths, electrical shock drownings are not isolated incidents. According to the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association, 25 of these deaths have occurred in the United States in the past 5 years (Osunsami, 2016). On top of basic swimming ability, everyone in your group should become acquainted with electrical shock safety measures.

Steps to avoid electric shock while swimming include:

  • Only swim in designated areas. Read all signage placed throughout the area.
  • Do not swim around a boat while it is running.
  • Never swim near a marina or boat dock unless the electrical power has been disconnected at the main breaker switch.
  • Always keep electrical cords a safe distance away from the water and splash zone.
  • If you feel tingling while swimming, alert the nearest person and swim back the way you came.

When faced with a potential shock of someone in the water, follow these steps:

  • Stay out of the water. No matter how much you want to help, you are putting yourself in danger and furthering the danger of the victim if you enter the water.
  • Call emergency services. Call 911 on your cell phone or channel 16 on a VHF marine radio.
  • Safely turn off all nearby power sources or potential threats.
  • Exercise extreme caution when removing someone from the water. Use insulators that resist transfer of electricity if using an aid device.
  • ESD victims can be revived with CPR. Learn CPR and maintain proficiency with it.

Lastly, take the time to talk to your marina’s owner to help prevent electrical hazards. Marina managers should follow this checklist to ensure safety:

  • Regularly check for frayed or cracked cords. If any are found or on the verge of becoming a hazard, replace them immediately.
  • Regularly inspect electrical system grounding circuits. Make sure electrical devices and extension cords are protected by a ground wire and ground plug and that wires are not damaged, grounding wires are securely connected, and grounding spades of a three prong plug are not missing.
  • Check for corrosion around power pedestals and other power sources. Call in the proper professionals to deal with these if necessary.
  • Use Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) and Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupters (ELCIs) where necessary. These quickly shut off a circuit’s power when will preventing shock by shutting off the electrical current if the amount of electricity going out differs by a certain amount from that returning.
  • Test GFCI and ELCI protection at least monthly as specified by the devices manufacturer.
  • Only use UL standard shore power cords to provide electrical power from a shore power to a boat. Never use standard household extension cords for ship to boat electrical power transfers.
  • Use certified electricians familiar with ABYC and NEC requirements. Maritime, dock, and shore electrical devices are often wired differently from each other.
  • Always be up to code. Have your property installed and inspected by a certified marine electrician to make sure it meets local NEC NFPA and ABYC safety codes (ESFI). Protective devices such as GFCI or ELCI’s may not be required for older boats or facilities but consider having them installed anyway as a retrofit.

The Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association is a great resource for anyone who wants to learn more about this topic.

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