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Beware of a hidden swimming danger: Electric Shock Drowning

May 26, 2020

Before taking the plunge, know what could be lurking in the water.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — As temperatures rise outside and the cooling water beckons, know the signs of a hidden danger that could be lurking in lakes and other water sources: electric shock drowning (ESD).

A type of drowning that many people are not familiar with, ESD happens when electrical current seeps into water from a nearby electrical source, such as a yacht, boat or marina dock. “As a child or adult swims in or near water that is electrified, his or her body can become a conductor for that electricity,” says Erin Hollinshead, executive director of Safe Electricity. “Once that electricity moves through the body, a person can become paralyzed and drown.”

Just as you wouldn’t use a blow dryer with one hand submerged in a sink full of water or stand in a flooded basement and plug something in, you would not knowingly jump into a body of water that has electricity running through it.

How does the electricity escape from its source into the water? Outdated wiring and a lack of proper safety equipment on boats and docks can cause it to happen. While ESD is an invisible danger, “Knowing how to prevent it, what to do if you think you are approaching electrified water and how to properly help someone else can definitely save your life or someone else’s (life),” Hollinshead said.

Safe Electricity offers these safety tips to recognize and avoid electric shock drowning:

While swimming

  • Do not swim around docks with electrical service or boats that are plugged into shore-to-dock power.
  • If you are swimming and feel tingling or shocks, swim away from the dock or any other electrical source, such as a security light. Yell to others to cut the power source. If you feel a shock, swim away from the dock is a good way to remember this.
  • If you think you are swimming in water that could be electrified, try to stay upright, tuck your legs up so that you are more compact, and swim away from anything you think could be energizing the water.

When helping someone else

  • Do not jump in to try and save someone you suspect might be exposed to electricity in the water. Instead, throw them a float and turn off shore power by using a switch or other mechanism (usually found on the meter base) or by unplugging the shore power cords.
  • While on shore assisting someone in the water, eliminate the source of power first, then call 9-1-1.
  • Get them to shore or on the dock by pulling them in with the float rope. If you cannot find a pulse, perform CPR until the local fire department or emergency responders arrive.

Prevention and Maintenance

  • If you own a boat that has an electrical system, make sure it is always in good working order and have it inspected annually by a qualified electrician. Consider purchasing a clamp meter to test for stray electricity in between inspections.
  • All docks should have ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) on the circuits that feed electricity to the docks. Check GFCIs often to make sure they work.
  • Faulty electricals in any water source could cause a problem. This includes hot tubs, pools and water parks. If you feel tingling or other unusual sensations, get out of the water.

While it is impossible to know if water is electrified just by looking, learning about the dangers of ESD can help keep you safe in the water.

General Boating Safety

The Sea Tow Foundation is partnering with Safe Electricity to promote awareness and educate others about the dangers around water. The foundation, which focuses on safe-boating practices, has compiled the following boating safety tips:

  • Don’t forget to inventory life jackets. Boaters are required to have enough life jackets onboard that are the right size for each passenger. This means that if you have children on board, you’ll need to make sure the life jackets are the correct size for each child and that they wear them at all times while the boat is moving. Don’t have enough life jackets for everyone or need a specific size to fit a growing child? Borrow them for free from one of the 650 Sea Tow Foundation loaner stations.
  • Make sure you have at least one ‘sober skipper.’ Alcohol is the leading known contributor in fatal boating accidents. Even just one drink can impair boaters, especially considering the effects from the sun, wind and waves. That is why it’s vital that every time you head out on the water, you designate a “Sober Skipper.”
  • Text someone before you launch. Texting or telling someone your “float plan” for the day ensures that if your boat trip extends longer than planned or if you run into trouble, someone will know where you were headed and have an idea of where to send rescuers to look for you.
  • Be prepared to signal: If there is an emergency on your boat, it is time to signal for help! This may mean using a flag, a whistle, a horn, or a mirror, but the most commonly carried piece of emergency signaling equipment is a set of flares.
  • Attach an engine cut-off device. Make sure you attach an engine cut-off device before turning on the boat’s engine. In case of emergency, the device stops the propeller if someone accidentally falls into the water.

For more information about safety around electricity, visit SafeElectricity.org. For more information on boating safety, visit BoatingSafety.com.

Safe Electricity is the award-winning, public awareness program of the Energy Education Council, a 501(c) 3 (not-for-profit organization) established in 1952 on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. With offices located in Springfield, Ill., Safe Electricity operates under the University of Illinois Extension and is led by the EEC Board of Directors. Since the Safe Electricity program was created in 2001, it has provided thousands safety-minded resources to its more than 500 utility members from across the country to help save lives and reduce injuries.