When I talk about safety with electricians, I typically ask, “How many people have firsthand knowledge of what electricity feels like?” Or “Who knows a fellow electrician that seems like they might have been shocked just a few too many times?” I usually get a chuckle, and then every hand in the room goes up. Some people even raise both hands, signaling that they know more than one person who overindulged in self-induced electroshock therapy.
This question shows a serious and significant issue in our industry: undiagnosed permanent harm from electric shock injuries to the human body. Many of us unknowingly walk around with damage from “getting bit” by electricity.
Recently, I attended the IEEE Electrical Safety Workshop (ESW) in Jacksonville, Fla. In the opening session, Dr. Raphael Lee and Dr. Neil Pliskin from the Chicago Electrical Trauma Rehabilitation Institute presented findings from their research. It was extremely eye-opening to hear about how the human body is affected by electrical current flowing through the tissue. One of the more interesting points was just how the current spreads through the body in the moments following the initial shock.
I realized the journeyman electricians who trained me had given me poor advice: “Keep one hand in your pocket so you don’t ground yourself and create a path for current” and “Touch the neutral first and then the hot; that way, if it is energized, the current will only flow through the fingers.”
We didn’t know that even small hits were potentially doing damage, often damage that we could not see.
When I got shocked
Not only was my information wrong, but I remembered the day I received a shock from a 277V lighting circuit hand-to-hand that had me hung up and unable to let go. Luckily, I was working on a 10-foot ladder, so I was able to kick it out from under me and use gravity as my method of contact release. It resulted in a trip to the emergency room for a sprained ankle, but zero attention was paid to the electric shock injury since there were no visible burns, blisters or other signs of harm. The doctors held me for observation for about 30 minutes, then sent me on my way. I thanked my lucky stars that it had not been worse, and went about my business.
However, maybe it was worse, and I just didn’t realize it. Another ESW 2022 session focused on electric shock sequela, or the long-term effects of electric shock injuries. The paper’s co-author is an electrician suffering from repeated electric shocks that cost him the ability to do the job he loved. Research shows that the effects can go far beyond outward signs of physical injury. Survivors can experience neurological and psychological symptoms such as depression, insomnia, dizziness, seizures, memory loss, moodiness and increased temper, to name a few. Looking at the list of symptoms, I cannot help but wonder how much cumulative damage I—and others I know—have sustained over the years.
As this line of research continues, one thing is abundantly clear: the only safe electrical work is done in electrically safe working conditions. That means we only touch it before it is connected in the first place or after it is verified to be in a zero-energy state and locked out in accordance with an established lockout/tagout program. The days of puffing out our chests and looking at getting bit as a natural part of the job or a right-of-passage are over.
The industry must band together to put this mentality behind us. After all, we never know when the next contact with an energized circuit part might be our last, or the final straw that piles onto previous injuries and causes irreversible damage.
For more information on the effects of electric shock to the human body, visit https://cetri.org/electrical-injury.