The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says that, depending on the level of electrical current, electrocution can result in something as innocuous (but still painful) as a mild shock to something more severe, like nerve damage and burns. In some circumstances, it can even cause cardiac arrest and death.
As dramatic as that may sound, we’re not trying to alarm anyone. But in the interest of keeping you and your loved ones safe, we asked the experts to reveal the most prevalent electrocution risks inside a home.
Most electrocutions from household appliances occur when people are trying to repair them. It’s not enough to just turn off an appliance before attempting to work on it—you also need to unplug it to reduce your electrocution risk.
So how many injuries do appliances cause? Large appliances are responsible for 18% of consumer product–related electrocutions, and small appliances account for 12%, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
But many of these hazards can be avoided by using a ground-fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI.
“A GFCI is a protective device installed on electrical outlets, primarily used where water is present,” say Steve Gentilcore, operations manager at Mr. Electric in Macomb, MI.
GFCI receptacles are found on outlets, circuit breakers, and extension cords. When they detect an imbalance in the electric current, they turn off the power to minimize the potential for an electrical shock.
Gentilcore says the National Electrical Code, as well as all residential codes, require GFCI protection for areas of the home where water is present.
“These areas include, but may not be limited to, kitchen outlets, bathroom outlets, exterior outlets, garage outlets, unfinished basement outlets, and, in some jurisdictions, laundry, sump pump, disposal, and dishwasher,” he says.
Typically, ladders present a falling hazard, but according to the safety commission, 8% of consumer product–related electrocutions were also related to ladders.
Electrocution typically happens when the ladder makes contact with electrical wires, according to J.B. Sassano, president of home repair franchise Mr. Handyman.
“When accessing a roof or second-level windows, watch for dangerous interference such as power lines,” he warns.
And before you even decide to use a ladder, make sure that you can see your power lines—including those that may be hidden by your tree branches—and ensure that the ladder is at least 10 feet away from them.
3. Power tools
Power tools account for 9% of consumer product–related electrocutions, reports the safety commission. According to OSHA, when you use power tools that are not double-insulated, are damaged, or have damaged cords, you can increase your chances of being electrocuted.
Also, when you use the incorrect cords with power tools, use the power tools incorrectly, or use them in wet conditions, your chances also increase. This is another situation in which GFCIs can help.
4. Electrical outlets, extension cords, etc.
“If someone can stick anything—screwdrivers, butter knives, fingers, or toy cars, to name a few—into an electrical junction box, they can be electrocuted,” says Gentilcore.
He recommends putting cover plates that fit properly on all devices.
“Any broken, loose, or worn-out plugs, switches, and light fixtures should be replaced immediately,” he says.
To be on the safe side, Bill Timmons, marketing manager of residential products at Legrand, recommends childproofing your outlets.
“By installing tamper-resistant receptacles, which are required by the National Electrical Code, outlets will have permanent security against foreign objects being inserted into the slots,” he says.
5. Extension cords
Faulty extension cords are another electrocution concern.
“Extension cords are intended for very temporary use and should never be used in lieu of permanent wiring,” Gentilcore says. “If an extension cord—or any cord, for that matter—is cracked, split, or damaged in any way, the best practice would be to discard it and get a new replacement.”
When in doubt, call an electrician
Electrocution can also occur when homeowners try to take on more than they can handle.
“All too often, homeowners will dabble in electrical repairs, whether it’s replacing an outlet or removing a breaker panel cover,” says Gentilcore. “Electricity cannot be seen and requires special testing equipment and training to locate a fault or complete tasks on live wiring.”
Although there are some electrical projects you can likely handle on your own, it’s probably wise to call in the experts for most electrical tasks to ensure you don’t get hurt.