“Tony, I don’t want you changing that outlet without your father here to supervise.”
“Aw, Mom, I’ve done this before, and I know how to replace a simple outlet,” answered Tony.
“Are you sure you turned off the right circuit breaker?” asked his mother.
“Sure. But it wouldn’t matter. Nobody gets hurt on just 120-volt house current.”
Wrong, Tony! Improper use of electrical equipment on a house wiring circuit can transmit a fatal current or cause a serious burn. The severity of electrical injuries is determined by these factors: voltage, current, resistance, and the duration of contact with the current. The voltage Tony referred to is not the most important factor. It is the current that causes the greatest damage. The relationship of voltage and current is similar to the pressure and flow in a garden hose. Voltage would be the pressure of the water; current would be the number of gallons being pumped per minute.
As little as 1 or 2 milliamps of current can be felt by a person. Someone grabbing more than 10 or 15 milliamps will not be able to let go. Cardiac arrhythmia can result from contact with 50 to 500 milliamps; breathing may be stopped by 100 milliamps to 1 amp. More than 500 milliamps may cause serious burns.
A typical electric frying pan can have as much as 10 amps flowing through it during use, so house current can do a lot of damage. It may even be fatal if the current crosses the heart.
The Path of Least Resistance
Most of the harm from electricity occurs in the nerves and blood vessels because they conduct the current better than muscle and bone. An electrical burn that appears small on the surface could have caused extensive damage to blood vessels and internal bleeding.
When electricity enters the body, it travels along the path of least resistance: the nerves and blood vessels. This current travels rapidly and generates heat that causes the destruction of surrounding tissues. The electricity exits wherever the body is in contact with a ground, such as a metal object or water. Sometimes a victim has more than one exit location and suffers burns around all of them. A victim may have serious damage from an explosion at the exit site.
A victim of an electrical injury can have a variety of symptoms. These include burns at the entry and exit sites, paralysis due to nerve damage, and muscle tenderness and twitching. Because electrical shock causes trauma, victims will also show signs of traumatic shock including pale skin, weakness, and loss of consciousness. The most severe electrical shocks can cause respiratory and cardiac arrest, requiring immediate CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).
In addition, electrical contact can cause first-, second-, and third-degree burns Direct contact between the skin and the metal of the wires of an electrical cord, such as when a child bites into a cord, can cause internal bleeding that may not begin until a day or two after the initial injury.
First Aid Facts
To give first aid for electrical burns, your first concern should be safety. Downed power lines are very dangerous. Don’t touch one under any circumstance. If a power line is down, wait for the fire department or power company before touching or going near the victim. Since the human body can conduct electricity, if you touch the victim, you become a victim. If people are trapped in a car by a downed power line, tell them not to move and to stay in the car until the power is turned off.
Once the victim is in a safe place, your next concern is for his or her breathing and heart function, especially if the victim is unconscious. Because electrical current can interfere with normal heart function, checking vital signs is more important than dealing with an obvious burn. If the victim is not breathing, begin rescue breathing. Then do a pulse check and determine if more CPR is needed.
You also will neeed to check for further injuries. Perhaps the victim fell and has injured his neck or spine. Or she may have hit her head. These injuries require first aid before you turn your attention to the electrical burn. Do a survey of the entire body. Electrical current may have entered the body at one point, and an exit wound may need to be discovered.
With most burns that are not electrical in nature, first aid is to cool the burn by applying cool water and then covering the burn with a sterile dressing. With electrical burns, first aid means simply covering the burn with a sterile, dry dressing. Bandage loosely. Do not remove clothing that may have become stuck to the burn. Don’t break blisters that form, and don’t apply any ointment or cream. Treat for traumatic shock by maintaining body temperature and elevating the feet if you are certain there is no neck or back injury.
If the victim has been struck by lightning, begin by extinguishing any flames. Send for help. Then check the victim’s vital signs — breathing and pulse. Give CPR if needed. If the victim is conscious, reassure him or her; check for entrance and exit burns and treat for traumatic shock. Because victims of lightning strikes are often thrown to the ground, be cautious about moving the victim. There may be neck and back injuries.
Respecting electricity is something that comes naturally to those who work with it on a daily basis. Amateurs are the individuals most likely to become injured because, like Tony, they think house current isn’t deadly. They may be dead wrong!