Overview of Electrical Hazards

Virgil Casini, B. S.

Electricity is a ubiquitous energy agent to which many workers in different occupations and industries are exposed daily in the performance of their duties. Many workers know that the principal danger from electricity is that of electrocution, but few really understand just how minute a quantity of electrical energy is required for electrocution. In reality, the current drawn by a tiny 7.5 watt, 120-volt lamp, passed from hand to hand or hand to foot across the chest is sufficient to cause electrocution. 1 The number of people who believe that normal household current is not lethal or that powerlines are insulated and do not pose a hazard is alarming. Electrocutions may result from contact with an object as seemingly innocuous as a broken light bulb or as lethal as an overhead powerline, and have affected workers since the first electrical fatality was recorded in France in 1879 when a stage carpenter was killed by an alternating current of 250 volts. 2

The information in the following two sections (Definitions and Effects of Electrical Energy) is intended as a basic explanation of electricity and the effects of electrical energy. Unless otherwise indicated, information in these sections is derived from OSHA electrical standards, 3, 4 the National Electrical Code (NEC), 5 and the National Electrical Safety Code. 6 Official definitions of electrical terms can be found in these same documents.


Electricity is the flow of an atom’s electrons through a conductor. Electrons, the outer particles of an atom, contain a negative charge. If electrons collect on an object, that object is negatively charged. If the electrons flow from an object through a conductor, the flow is called electric current. Four primary terms are used in discussing electricity: voltage, resistance, current, and ground.

Voltage is the fundamental force or pressure that causes electricity to flow through a conductor and is measured in volts. Resistance is anything that impedes the flow of electricity through a conductor and is measured in Ohms. Current is the flow of electrons from a source of voltage through a conductor and is measured in amperes (Amps). If the current flows back and forth (a cycle) through a conductor, it is called alternating current (AC). In each cycle the electrons flow first in one direction, then the other. In the United States, the normal rate is 60 cycles per second [or 60 Hertz (Hz)]. If current flows in one direction only (as in a car battery), it is called direct current (DC).

AC is most widely used because it is possible to step up or step down (i.e., increase or decrease) the current through a transformer. For example, when current from an overhead powerline is run through a pole-mounted transformer, it can be stepped down to normal household current.

Ohm’s Law (Current=Voltage/Resistance) can be used to relate these three elements mathematically.

A ground is a conducting connection, whether or not unintentional, between an electrical circuit or equipment and the earth, or to some conducting body that serves in place of the earth.

Effects of Electrical Energy

Electrical injuries consist of four main types: electrocution (fatal), electric shock, burns, and falls caused as a result of contact with electrical energy.

Electrocution results when a human is exposed to a lethal amount of electrical energy. To determine how contact with an electrical source occurs, characteristics of the electrical source before the time of the incident must be evaluated (pre-event). For death to occur, the human body must become part of an active electrical circuit having a current capable of over stimulating the nervous system or causing damage to internal organs. The extent of injuries received depends on the current’s magnitude (measured in Amps), the pathway of the current through the body, and the duration of current flow through the body (event). The resulting damage to the human body and the emergency medical treatment ultimately determine the outcome of the energy exchange (post-event). 7

Electrical injuries may occur in various ways: direct contact with electrical energy, injuries that occur when electricity arcs (an arc is a flow of electrons through a gas, such as air) to a victim at ground potential (supplying an alternative path to ground), flash burns from the heat generated by an electrical arc, and flame burns from the ignition of clothing or other combustible, non electrical materials. Direct contact and arcing injuries produce similar effects. Burns at the point of contact with electrical energy can be caused by arcing to the skin, heating at the point of contact by a high-resistance contact, or higher voltage currents. Contact with a source of electrical energy can cause external as well as internal burns. Exposure to higher voltages will normally result in burns at the sites where the electrical current enters and exits the human body. High voltage contact burns may display only small superficial injury; however, the danger of these deep burns destroying tissue subcutaneously exists. 8 Additionally, internal blood vessels may clot, nerves in the area of the contact point may be damaged, and muscle contractions may cause skeletal fractures either directly or in association with falls from elevation. 9 It is also possible to have a low-voltage electrocution without visible marks to the body of the victim.

Flash burns and flame burns are actually thermal burns. In these situations, electrical current does not flow through the victim and injuries are often confined to the skin.

Contact with electrical current could cause a muscular contraction or a startle reaction that could be hazardous if it leads to a fall from elevation (ladder, aerial bucket, etc.) or contact with dangerous equipment. 10

The NEC describes high voltage as greater than 600 volts AC. 5 Most utilization circuits and equipment operate at voltages lower than 600 volts, including common household circuits (110/120 volts); most overhead lighting systems used in industry or office buildings and department stores; and much of the electrical machinery used in industry, such as conveyor systems, and manufacturing machinery such as weaving machines, paper rolling machines or industrial pumps.

Voltages over 600 volts can rupture human skin, greatly reducing the resistance of the human body, allowing more current to flow and causing greater damage to internal organs. The most common high voltages are transmission voltages (typically over 13,800 volts) and distribution voltages (typically under 13,800 volts). The latter are the voltages transferred from the power generation plants to homes, offices, and manufacturing plants.
Standard utilization voltages produce currents passing through a human body in the milliampere (mA) range (1,000 mA=1 Amp). Estimated effects of 60 Hz AC currents which pass through the chest are shown in Table 1.

1 mA  Bareley preceptible 
16 mA Maximum current an average man can grasp and “let go”
20 mA Paralysis of respiratory muscles 
100 mA Ventricular fibrillation threshold
2 Amps Cardiac standstill and internal organ damage
15/20 Amps  Common fuse or breaker opens circuit
* Contact with 20 milliamps of current can be fatal. As a frame of reference, a common household circuit breaker may be rated at 15, 20, or 30 amps.

When current greater than the 16 mA “let go current” passes through the forearm, it stimulates involuntary contraction of both flexor and extensor muscles. When the stronger flexors dominate, victims may be unable to release the energized object they have grasped as long as the current flows. If current exceeding 20 mA continues to pass through the chest for an extended time, death could occur from respiratory paralysis. Currents of 100 mA or more, up to 2 Amps, may cause ventricular fibrillation, probably the most common cause of death from electric shock. 11 Ventricular fibrillation is the uneven pumping of the heart due to the uncoordinated, asynchronous contraction of the ventricular muscle fibers of the heart that leads quickly to death from lack of oxygen to the brain. Ventricular fibrillation is terminated by the use of a defibrillator, which provides a pulse shock to the chest to restore the heart rhythm. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is used as a temporary care measure to provide the circulation of some oxygenated blood to the brain until a defibrillator can be used. 23

The speed with which resuscitative measures are initiated has been found to be critical. Immediate defibrillation would be ideal; however, for victims of cardiopulmonary arrest, resuscitation has the greatest rate of success if CPR is initiated within 4 minutes and advanced cardiac life support is initiated within 8 minutes (National Conference on CPR and ECC, 1986). 6

The presence of moisture from environmental conditions such as standing water, wet clothing, high humidity, or perspiration increases the possibility of a low-voltage electrocution. The level of current passing through the human body is directly related to the resistance of its path through the body. Under dry conditions, the resistance offered by the human body may be as high as 100,000 Ohms. Wet or broken skin may drop the body’s resistance to 1,000 Ohms. The following illustrations of Ohm’s law demonstrates how moisture affects low-voltage electrocutions. Under dry conditions, Current=Volts/Ohms = 120/100,000 = 1 mA, a barely perceptible level of current. Under wet conditions, Current=Volts/Ohms = 120/1,000 = 120 mA, sufficient current to cause ventricular fibrillation. Wet conditions are common during low-voltage electrocutions.

High-voltage electrical energy quickly breaks down human skin, reducing the human body’s resistance to 500 Ohms. Once the skin is punctured, the lowered resistance results in massive current flow, measured in Amps. Again, Ohm’s law is used to demonstrate the action. For example, at 1,000 volts, Current=Volts/Ohms = 1000/500 = 2 Amps, which can cause cardiac standstill and serious damage to internal organs.


Electrical hazards represent a serious, widespread occupational danger; practically all members of the workforce are exposed to electrical energy during the performance of their daily duties, and electrocutions occur to workers in various job categories. Many workers are unaware of the potential electrical hazards present in their work environment, which makes them more vulnerable to the danger of electrocution.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) addresses electrical safety in Subpart S 29 CFR 1910.302 through 1910.399 of the General Industry Safety and Health Standards. 3 The standards contain requirements that apply to all electrical installations and utilization equipment, regardless of when they were designed or installed. Subpart K of 29 CFR 1926.402 through 1926.408 of the OSHA Construction Safety and Health Standards 4 contain installation safety requirements for electrical equipment and installations used to provide electric power and light at the jobsite. These sections apply to both temporary and permanent installations used on the jobsite.

Additionally, the National Electrical Code (NEC) 5 and the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) 6 comprehensively address electrical safety regulations. The purpose of the NEC is the practical safeguarding of persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity. The NEC contains provisions considered necessary for safety and applies to the installation of electric conductors and equipment within or on public or private buildings or other structures, including mobile homes, recreational vehicles, and floating buildings; and other premises such as yards; carnival, parking, and other lots; and industrial substations. The NEC serves as the basis for electrical building codes across the United States.

The NESC contains rules necessary for the practical safeguarding of persons during the installation, operation, or maintenance of electric supply and communication lines and associated equipment. These rules contain the basic provisions that are considered necessary for the safety of employees and the public under the specified conditions. Unlike the NEC, the NESC contains work rules in addition to installation requirements.


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