effects of electricity

Most of us have experienced some form of electric “shock,” where electricity causes our body to experience pain or trauma. If we are fortunate, the extent of that experience is limited to tingles or jolts of pain from static electricity buildup discharging through our bodies. When we are working around electric circuits capable of delivering high power to loads, electric shock becomes a much more serious issue, and pain is the least significant result of shock.

As electric current is conducted through a material, any opposition to that flow of electrons (resistance) results in a dissipation of energy, usually in the form of heat. This is the most basic and easy-to-understand effect of electricity on living tissue: current makes it heat up. If the amount of heat generated is sufficient, the tissue may be burnt. The effect is physiologically the same as damage caused by an open flame or other high-temperature source of heat, except that electricity has the ability to burn tissue well beneath the skin of a victim, even burning internal organs.

Another effect of electric current on the body, perhaps the most significant in terms of hazard, regards the nervous system. By “nervous system” I mean the network of special cells in the body called “nerve cells” or “neurons” which process and conduct the multitude of signals responsible for regulation of may body functions. The brain, spinal cord, and sensory/motor organs in the body function together to allow it to sense, move, respond, think, and remember.

Nerve cells communicate to each other by acting as “transducers:” creating electrical signals (very small voltages and currents) in response to the input of certain chemical compounds called neurotransmitters, and releasing neurotransmitters when stimulated by electrical signals. If electric current of sufficient magnitude is conducted through a living creature (human or otherwise), its effect will be to override the tiny electrical impulses normally generated by the neurons, overloading the nervous system and preventing both reflex and volitional signals from being able to actuate muscles. Muscles triggered by an external (shock) current will involuntarily contract, and there’s nothing the victim can do about it.

This problem is especially dangerous if the victim contacts an energized conductor with his or her hands. The forearm muscles responsible for bending fingers tend to be better developed than those muscles responsible for extending fingers, and so if both sets of muscles try to contract because of an electric current conducted through the person’s arm, the “bending” muscles will win, clenching the fingers into a fist. If the conductor delivering current to the victim faces the palm of his or her hand, this clenching action will force the hand to grasp the wire firmly, thus worsening the situation by securing excellent contact with the wire. The victim will be completely unable to let go of the wire.

Medically, this condition of involuntary muscle contraction is called tetanus. Electricians familiar with this effect of electric shock often refer to an immobilized victim of electric shock as being “froze on the circuit.” Shock-induced tetanus can only be interrupted by stopping the current through the victim.

Even when the current is stopped, the victim may not regain voluntary control over their muscles for a while, as the neurotransmitter chemistry has been thrown into disarray. This principle has been applied in “stun gun” devices such as Tasers, which on the principle of momentarily shocking a victim with a high-voltage pulse delivered between two electrodes. A well-placed shock has the effect of temporarily (a few minutes) immobilizing the victim.

Electric current is able to affect more than just skeletal muscles in a shock victim, however. The diaphragm muscle controlling the lungs, and the heart — which is a muscle in itself — can also be “frozen” in a state of tetanus by electric current. Even currents too low to induce tetanus are often able to scramble nerve cell signals enough that the heart cannot beat properly, sending the heart into a condition known as fibrillation. A fibrillating heart flutters rather than beats, and is ineffective at pumping blood to vital organs in the body. In any case, death from asphyxiation and/or cardiac arrest will surely result from a strong enough electric current through the body. Ironically, medical personnel use a strong jolt of electric current applied across the chest of a victim to “jump start” a fibrillating heart into a normal beating pattern.

That last detail leads us into another hazard of electric shock, this one peculiar to public power systems. Though our initial study of electric circuits will focus almost exclusively on DC (Direct Current, or electricity that moves in a continuous direction in a circuit), modern power systems utilize alternating current, or AC. The technical reasons for this preference of AC over DC in power systems are irrelevant to this discussion, but the special hazards of each kind of electrical power are very important to the topic of safety.

How AC affects the body depends largely on frequency. Low-frequency (50- to 60-Hz) AC is used in US (60 Hz) and European (50 Hz) households; it can be more dangerous than high-frequency AC and is 3 to 5 times more dangerous than DC of he same voltage and amperage. Low-frequency AC produces extended muscle contraction (tetany), which may freeze the hand to the current’s source, prolonging exposure. DC is most likely to cause a single convulsive contraction, which often forces the victim away from the current’s source.

AC’s alternating nature has a greater tendency to throw the heart’s pacemaker neurons into a condition of fibrillation, whereas DC tends to just make the heart stand still. Once the shock current is halted, a “frozen” heart has a better chance of regaining a normal beat pattern than a fibrillating heart. This is why “defibrillating” equipment used by emergency medics works: the jolt of current supplied by the defibrillator unit is DC, which halts fibrillation and gives the heart a chance to recover.

In either case, electric currents high enough to cause involuntary muscle action are dangerous and are to be avoided at all costs. In the next section, we’ll take a look at how such currents typically enter and exit the body, and examine precautions against such occurrences.

Shock current path

As we’ve already learned, electricity requires a complete path (circuit) to continuously flow. This is why the shock received from static electricity is only a momentary jolt: the flow of electrons is necessarily brief when static charges are equalized between two objects. Shocks of self-limited duration like this are rarely hazardous.

Without two contact points on the body for current to enter and exit, respectively, there is no hazard of shock. This is why birds can safely rest on high-voltage power lines without getting shocked: they make contact with the circuit at only one point.

In order for electrons to flow through a conductor, there must be a voltage present to motivate them. Voltage, as you should recall, is always relative between two points. There is no such thing as voltage “on” or “at” a single point in the circuit, and so the bird contacting a single point in the above circuit has no voltage applied across its body to establish a current through it. Yes, even though they rest on two feet, both feet are touching the same wire, making them electrically common. Electrically speaking, both of the bird’s feet touch the same point, hence there is no voltage between them to motivate current through the bird’s body.

This might lend one to believe that its impossible to be shocked by electricity by only touching a single wire. Like the birds, if we’re sure to touch only one wire at a time, we’ll be safe, right? Unfortunately, this is not correct. Unlike birds, people are usually standing on the ground when they contact a “live” wire. Many times, one side of a power system will be intentionally connected to earth ground, and so the person touching a single wire is actually making contact between two points in the circuit (the wire an earth ground):

The ground symbol is that set of three horizontal bars of decreasing width located at the lower-left of the circuit shown, and also at the foot of the person being shocked. In real life the power system ground consists of some kind of metallic conductor buried deep in the ground for making maximum contact with the earth. That conductor is electrically connected to an appropriate connection point on the circuit with thick wire. The victim’s ground connection is through their feet, which are touching the earth.

A few questions usually arise at this point in the mind of the student:

In answer to the first question, the presence of an intentional “grounding” point in an electric circuit is intended to ensure that one side of it is safe to come in contact with. Note that if our victim in the above diagram were to touch the bottom side of the resistor, nothing would happen even though their feet would still be contacting ground:

Because the bottom side of the circuit is firmly connected to ground through the grounding point on the lower-left of the circuit, the lower conductor of the circuit is made electrically common with earth ground. Since there can be no voltage between electrically common points, there will be no voltage applied across the person contacting the lower wire, and they will not receive a shock. For the same reason, the wire connecting the circuit to the grounding rod/plates is usually left bare (no insulation), so that any metal object it brushes up against will similarly be electrically common with the earth.

Circuit grounding ensures that at least one point in the circuit will be safe to touch. But what about leaving a circuit completely ungrounded? Wouldn’t that make any person touching just a single wire as safe as the bird sitting on just one? Ideally, yes. Practically, no. Observe what happens with no ground at all:

Despite the fact that the person’s feet are still contacting ground, any single point in the circuit should be safe to touch. Since there is no complete path (circuit) formed through the person’s body from the bottom side of the voltage source to the top, there is no way for a current to be established through the person. However, this could all change with an accidental ground, such as a tree branch touching a power line and providing connection to earth ground:

Such an accidental connection between a power system conductor and the earth (ground) is called a ground fault. Ground faults may be caused by many things, including dirt buildup on power line insulators (creating a dirty-water path for current from the conductor to the pole, and to the ground, when it rains), ground water infiltration in buried power line conductors, and birds landing on power lines, bridging the line to the pole with their wings. Given the many causes of ground faults, they tend to be unpredicatable. In the case of trees, no one can guarantee which wire their branches might touch. If a tree were to brush up against the top wire in the circuit, it would make the top wire safe to touch and the bottom one dangerous — just the opposite of the previous scenario where the tree contacts the bottom wire:

With a tree branch contacting the op wire, that wire becomes the grounded conductor in the circuit, electrically common with earth ground. Therefore, there is no voltage between that wire and ground, but full (high) voltage between the bottom wire and ground. As mentioned previously, tree branches are only one potential source of ground faults in a power system. Consider an ungrounded power system with no trees in contact, but this time with two people touching single wires:

With each person standing on the ground, contacting different points in the circuit, a path for shock current is made through one person, through the earth, and through the other person. Even though each person thinks they’re safe in only touching a single point in the circuit, their combined actions create a deadly scenario. In effect, one person acts as the ground fault which makes it unsafe for the other person. This is exactly why ungrounded power systems are dangerous: the voltage between any point in the circuit and ground (earth) is unpredictable, because a ground fault could appear at any point in the circuit at any time. The only character guaranteed to be safe in these scenarios is the bird, who has no connection to earth ground at all! By firmly connecting a designated point in the circuit to earth ground (“grounding” the circuit), at least safety can be assured at that one point. This is more assurance of safety than having no ground connection at all.

In answer to the second question, rubber-soled shoes do indeed provide some electrical insulation to help protect someone from conducting shock current through their feet. However, most common shoe designs are not intended to be electrically “safe,” their soles being too thin and not of the right substance. Also, any moisture, dirt, or conductive salts from body sweat on the surface of or permeated through the soles of shoes will compromise what little insulating value the shoe had to begin with. There are shoes specifically made for dangerous electrical work, as well as thick rubber mats made to stand on while working on live circuits, but these special pieces of gear must be in absolutely clean, dry condition in order to be effective. Suffice it to say, normal footwear is not enough to guarantee protection against electric shock from a power system.

Research conducted on contact resistance between parts of the human body and points of contact (such as the ground) shows a wide range of figures (see end of chapter for information on the source of this data):

As you can see, not only is rubber a far better insulating material than leather, but the presence of water in a porous substance such as leather greatly reduces electrical resistance.

In answer to the third question, dirt is not a very good conductor (at least not when its dry!). It is too poor of a conductor to support continuous current for powering a load. However, as we will see in the next section, it takes very little current to injure or kill a human being, so even the poor conductivity of dirt is enough to provide a path for deadly current when there is sufficient voltage available, as there usually is in power systems.

Some ground surfaces are better insulators than others. Asphalt, for instance, being oil-based, has a much greater resistance than most forms of dirt or rock. Concrete, on the other hand, tends to have fairly low resistance due to its intrinsic water and electrolyte (conductive chemical) content.

Ohm’s Law

A common phrase heard in reference to electrical safety goes something like this: “It’s not voltage that kills, its current!” While there is an element of truth to this, there’s more to understand about shock hazard than this simple adage. If voltage presented no danger, no one would ever print and display signs saying: DANGER — HIGH VOLTAGE!

The principle that “current kills” is essentially correct. It is electric current that burns tissue, freezes muscles, and fibrillates hearts. However, electric current doesn’t just occur on its own: there must be voltage available to motivate electrons to flow through a victim. A person’s body also presents resistance to current, which must be taken into account.

Taking Ohm’s Law for voltage, current, and resistance, and expressing it in terms of current for a given voltage and resistance, we have this equation:

The amount of current through a body is equal to the amount of voltage applied between two points on that body, divided by the electrical resistance offered by the body between those two points. Obviously, the more voltage available to cause electrons to flow, the easier they will flow through any given amount of resistance. Hence, the danger of high voltage: high voltage means potential for large amounts of current through your body, which will injure or kill you. Conversely, the more resistance a body offers to current, the slower electrons will flow for any given amount of voltage. Just how much voltage is dangerous depends on how much total resistance is in the circuit to oppose the flow of electrons.

Body resistance is not a fixed quantity. It varies from person to person and from time to time. There’s even a body fat measurement technique based on a measurement of electrical resistance between a person’s toes and fingers. Differing percentages of body fat give provide different resistances: just one variable affecting electrical resistance in the human body. In order for the technique to work accurately, the person must regulate their fluid intake for several hours prior to the test, indicating that body hydration another factor impacting the body’s electrical resistance.

Body resistance also varies depending on how contact is made with the skin: is it from hand-to-hand, hand-to-foot, foot-to-foot, hand-to-elbow, etc.? Sweat, being rich in salts and minerals, is an excellent conductor of electricity for being a liquid. So is blood, with its similarly high content of conductive chemicals. Thus, contact with a wire made by a sweaty hand or open wound will offer much less resistance to current than contact made by clean, dry skin.

Measuring electrical resistance with a sensitive meter, I measure approximately 1 million ohms of resistance (1 MΩ) between my two hands, holding on to the meter’s metal probes between my fingers. The meter indicates less resistance when I squeeze the probes tightly and more resistance when I hold them loosely. Sitting here at my computer, typing these words, my hands are clean and dry. If I were working in some hot, dirty, industrial environment, the resistance between my hands would likely be much less, presenting less opposition to deadly current, and a greater threat of electrical shock.

But how much currnt is harmful? The answer to that question also depends on several factors. Individual body chemistry has a significant impact on how electric current affects an individual. Some people are highly sensitive to current, experiencing involuntary muscle contraction with shocks from static electricity. Others can draw large sparks from discharging static electricity and hardly feel it, much less experience a muscle spasm. Despite these differences, approximate guidelines have been developed through tests which indicate very little current being necessary to manifest harmful effects (again, see end of chapter for information on the source of this data). All current figures given in milliamps (a milliamp is equal to 1/1000 of an amp):

Slight sensation Men = 1.0 mA 0.4 mA 7 mA
felt at hand(s) Women = 0.6 mA 0.3 mA 5 mA
Threshold of Men = 5.2 mA 1.1 mA 12 mA
perception Women = 3.5 mA 0.7 mA 8 mA
Painful, but Men = 62 mA 9 mA 55 mA
voluntary muscle Women = 41 mA 6 mA 37 mA
control maintained
Painful, unable Men = 76 mA 16 mA 75 mA
to let go of wires Women = 51 mA 10.5 mA 50 mA
Severe pain, Men = 90 mA 23 mA 94 mA
difficulty Women = 60 mA 15 mA 63 mA
Possible heart Men = 500 mA 100 mA
fibrillation Women = 500 mA 100 mA
after 3 seconds

“Hz” stands for the unit of Hertz, the measure of how rapidly alternating current alternates, a measure otherwise known as frequency. So, the column of figures labeled “60 Hz AC” refers to current that alternates at a frequency of 60 cycles (1 cycle = period of time where electrons flow one direction, then the other direction) per second. The last column, labeled “10 kHz AC,” refers to alternating current that completes ten thousand (10,000) back-and-forth cycles each and every second.

Keep in mind that these figures are only approximate, as individuals with different body chemistry may react differently. It has been suggested that an across-the-chest current of only 17 milliamps AC is enough to induce fibrillation in a human subject under certain conditions. Most of our data regarding induced fibrillation comes from animal testing. Obviously, it is not practical to perform tests of induced ventricular fibrillation on human subjects, so the available data is sketchy. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I have no idea why women tend to be more susceptible to electric currents than men!

Suppose I were to place my two hands across the terminals of an AC voltage source at 60 Hz (60 cycles, or alternations back-and-forth, per second). How much voltage would be necessary in this clean, dry state of skin condition to produce a current of 20 milliamps (enough to cause me to become unable to let go of the voltage source)? We can use Ohm’s Law (E=IR) to determine this:

E = IR

E = (20 mA)(1 MΩ)

E = 20,000 volts, or 20 kV

Bear in mind that this is a “best case” scenario (clean, dry skin) from the standpoint of electrical safety, and that this figure for voltage represents the amount necessary to induce tetanus. Far less would be required to cause a painful shock! Also keep in mind that the physiological effects of any particular amount of current can vary significantly from person to person, ad that these calculations are rough estimates only.

With water sprinkled on my fingers to simulate sweat, I was able to measure a hand-to-hand resistance of only 17,000 ohms (17 kΩ). Bear in mind this is only with one finger of each hand contacting a thin metal wire. Recalculating the voltage required to cause a current of 20 milliamps, we obtain this figure:

E = IR

E = (20 mA)(17 kΩ)

E = 340 volts

In this realistic condition, it would only take 340 volts of potential from one of my hands to the other to cause 20 milliamps of current. However, it is still possible to receive a deadly shock from less voltage than this. Provided a much lower body resistance figure augmented by contact with a ring (a band of gold wrapped around the circumference of one’s finger makes an excellent contact point for electrical shock) or full contact with a large metal object such as a pipe or metal handle of a tool, the body resistance figure could drop as low as 1,000 ohms (1 kΩ), allowing an even lower voltage to present a potential hazard:

E = IR

E = (20 mA)(1 kΩ)

E = 20 volts

Notice that in this condition, 20 volts is enough to produce a current of 20 milliamps through a person: enough to induce tetanus. Remember, it has been suggested a current of only 17 milliamps may induce ventricular (heart) fibrillation. With a hand-to-hand resistance of 1000 Ω, it would only take 17 volts to create this dangerous condition:

E = IR

E = (17 mA)(1 kΩ)

E = 17 volts

Seventeen volts is not very much as far as electrical systems are concerned. Granted, this is a “worst-case” scenario with 60 Hz AC voltage and excellent bodily conductivity, but it does stand to show how little voltage may present a serious threat under certain conditions.

The conditions necessary to produce 1,000 Ω of body resistance don’t have to be as extreme as what was presented, either (sweaty skin with contact made on a gold ring). Body resistance may decrease with the application of voltage (especially if tetanus causes the victim to maintain a tighter grip on a conductor) so that with constant voltage a shock may increase in severity after initial contact. What begins as a mild shock — just enough to “freeze” a victim so they can’t let go — may escalate into something severe enough to kill them as their body resistance decreases and current correspondingly increases.

Research has provided an approximate set of figures for electrical resistance of human contact points under different conditions (see end of chapter for information on the source of this data):

Note the resistance values of the two conditions involving a 1.5 inch metal pipe. The resistance measured with two hands grasping the pipe is exactly one-half the resistance of one hand grasping the pipe.

With two hands, the bodily contact area is twice as great as with one hand. This is an important lesson to learn: electrical resistance between any contacting objects diminishes with increased contct area, all other factors being equal. With two hands holding the pipe, electrons have two, parallel routes through which to flow from the pipe to the body (or vice-versa).

As we will see in a later chapter, parallel circuit pathways always result in less overall resistance than any single pathway considered alone.

In industry, 30 volts is generally considered to be a conservative threshold value for dangerous voltage. The cautious person should regard any voltage above 30 volts as threatening, not relying on normal body resistance for protection against shock. That being said, it is still an excellent idea to keep one’s hands clean and dry, and remove all metal jewelry when working around electricity. Even around lower voltages, metal jewelry can present a hazard by conducting enough current to burn the skin if brought into contact between two points in a circuit. Metal rings, especially, have been the cause of more than a few burnt fingers by bridging between points in a low-voltage, high-current circuit.

Also, voltages lower than 30 can be dangerous if they are enough to induce an unpleasant sensation, which may cause you to jerk and accidently come into contact across a higher voltage or some other hazard. I recall once working on a automobile on a hot summer day. I was wearing shorts, my bare leg contacting the chrome bumper of the vehicle as I tightened battery connections. When I touched my metal wrench to the positive (ungrounded) side of the 12 volt battery, I could feel a tingling sensation at the point where my leg was touching the bumper. The combination of firm contact with metal and my sweaty skin made it possible to feel a shock with only 12 volts of electrical potential.

Thankfully, nothing bad happened, but had the engine been running and the shock felt at my hand instead of my leg, I might have reflexively jerked my arm into the path of the rotating fan, or dropped the metal wrench across the battery terminals (producing large amounts of current through the wrench with lots of accompanying sparks). This illustrates another important lesson regarding electrical safety; that electric current itself may be an indirect cause of injury by causing you to jump or spasm parts of your body into harm’s way.

The path current takes through the human body makes a difference as to how harmful it is. Current will affect whatever muscles are in its path, and since the heart and lung (diaphragm) muscles are probably the most critical to one’s survival, shock paths traversing the chest are the most dangerous. This makes the hand-to-hand shock current path a very likely mode of injury and fatality.

To guard against such an occurrence, it is advisable to only use one hand to work on live circuits of hazardous voltage, keeping the other hand tucked into a pocket so as to not accidently touch anything. Of course, it is always safer to work on a circuit when it is unpowered, but this is not always practical or possible. For one-handed work, the right hand is generally preferred over the left for two reasons: most people are right-handed (thus granting additional coordination when working), and the heart is usually situated to the left of center in the chest cavity.

For those who are left-handed, this advice may not be the best. If such a person is sufficiently uncoordinated with their right hand, they may be placing themselves in greater danger by using the hand they’re least comfortable with, even if shock current through that hand might present more of a hazard to their heart. The relative hazard between shock through one hand or the other is probably less than the hazard of working with less than optimal coordination, so the choice of which hand to work with is best left to the individual.

The best protection against shock from a live circuit is resistance, and resistance can be added to the body through the use of insulated tools, gloves, boots, and other gear. Current in a circui is a function of available voltage divided by the total resistance in the path of the flow. As we will investigate in greater detail later in this book, resistances have an additive effect when they’re stacked up so that there’s only one path for electrons to flow:

Now we’ll see an equivalent circuit for a person wearing insulated gloves and boots:

Because electric current must pass through the boot and the body and the glove to complete its circuit back to the battery, the combined total (sum) of these resistances opposes the flow of electrons to a greater degree than any of the resistances considered individually.

Safety is one of the reasons electrical wires are usually covered with plastic or rubber insulation: to vastly increase the amount of resistance between the conductor and whoever or whatever might contact it. Unfortunately, it would be prohibitively expensive to enclose power line conductors in sufficient insulation to provide safety in case of accidental contact, so safety is maintained by keeping those lines far enough out of reach so that no one can accidently touch them.

Related Posts: