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24 August 2007

The dark side of electricity

You flick the switch and there is light. It seems tame enough. But electricity can kill people. We focus on this during National Electricity Safety Week.

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Hundreds of people die or suffer serious injury every year from electric shock in South Africa. According to Eskom, the majority of these deaths occur as a result of illegal activities such as cable theft, unlawful connections and vandalism.

But people also die because of negligent behaviour. So make sure you know how to prevent such accidents, and what to do if one does happen.

What is electric shock?
Electric shock is an injury - ranging from a minor burn to death (electrocution) - caused by electrical current passing through the body. These injuries include burns, muscle contractions and seizures, bone fractures, tissue death, kidney failure and respiratory and heart failure.

And it's not just electricity pylons and industrial electrical equipment that can kill: people have been electrocuted by ordinary, low-voltage household appliances. Basically, any electrical device used on a house wiring circuit can potentially transmit a fatal shock.

What to do if someone is shocked

  • Only approach the person who has been shocked if you’re sure the area is safe. If the person is still in contact with the source of electricity, you need to break contact between them and the current as quickly as possible – but you can’t touch them with your bare hands or you risk being shocked yourself. It’s best to turn off the current at the main fuse box; don’t use the switch of the appliance. If this isn't possible, use something wooden – such as a broomstick – to separate the person from the source. Stand on non-conducting material while you do this e.g. a rubber mat or stack of newspapers.
  • Call an ambulance and while waiting check the ABC’s: airway, breathing, circulation and start CPR if necessary. Check for shock.
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  • With high voltages, the person may have been thrown into the air and has back, head or neck injuries. Don’t move them unless there is immediate danger.
  • Cover any burns with a sterile gauze bandage or a clean cloth, but not adhesive dressings or ointments.
  • Someone who has been struck by lightning (a form of static electricity) poses no danger to the rescuer.
  • How to prevent electric shock
    Electricity safety involves common sense and respect for electrical wiring and appliances. A quick reminder of what we all know but sometimes forget:

    • Have an electrician check the wiring in your home, especially if it is old and hasn’t been checked for years. Remember to get outdoor wiring, e.g. swimming pool lights, checked too. Don’t try to fix wiring and appliances yourself.
    • If you’re into DIY, it’s very important that you use power tools exactly as instructed by the manufacturers – and while wearing shoes, of course.
    • Don’t tamper with appliances while they’re plugged in, sticking a knife into the toaster being the classic example.
    • Don’t touch electrical appliances if you’re wet. Electricity has no place in the bathroom; that’s why the light switch is outside the bathroom door.
    • If an appliance such as a space heater keeps tripping the electricity, it may very well be faulty. Have it checked or replaced.
    • Never use electrical cords with exposed wires, and check cords for signs of wear. Extension cords, especially, take a lot of knocks. They are also attractive to toddlers and puppies as chew-toys, so keep them out of reach. Use the appropriate plugs for an electrical outlets or appliance, and take care not to touch the metal parts of the plug as you insert it.
    • Stay well clear of fallen or damaged power cables – and report them.
    • Don't let objects like ladders touch power cables

    - Health24, August 2007

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