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May 2016 is National Electrical Safety Month

What you don’t know won’t hurt you – is a well-worn idiom that has been around for many years. While the words can be comforting, the reality is that what you do not know, or cannot see, can injure or even kill you.

Electricity, that commonplace convenience that powers our homes and businesses, brings me to an equally dangerous saying – Out of sight, out of mind. Because electrical current is not often seen, we tend to accept its existence as an ordinary and safe part of our lives.

This article will highlight the leading causes associated with personal injury and electrocution in homes and in the workplace, address property fire damage originating from electrical sources, and offer tips for working safely with electricity.

Since the mid-1990s Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) has designated the month of May as the annual time to focus on your year-round electrical safety knowledge and understanding.

Public resource information for this paper was drawn from ESFI, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), U.W. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), National Safety Council, and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).   At the conclusion of this report, website links for each will be provided for added personal research.

A Few Fire-Related Statistics

According to the National Fire Protection Association, 47,700 home fires in the U.S. are caused by electrical failures or malfunctions each year. These fires resulted in 418 deaths, 1,570 injuries, and $1.4 billion in property damage. Overloaded electrical circuits are a major cause of residential fires. Aging electrical systems combined with continually growing power demands has significantly contributed to an increasing risk of experiencing an electrical fire. You can take measures to help reduce this risk by not overloading your electrical system.

Overloaded circuit warning signs:

  • Flickering, blinking, or dimming lights
  • Frequently tripped circuit breakers, or blown fuses
  • Warm or discolored wall outlet plates
  • Cracking, sizzling, or buzzing from receptacles
  • Acrid, burning odor coming from electrical outlets and switches.
  • Mild shock or tingle when touching appliances, receptacles, or switches

How to prevent electrical overloads:

  • Never use extension cords or multi-outlet converters for appliances
  • All major appliances should be plugged directly into a wall receptacle outlet.
  • Only plug one heat producing appliance into a receptacle outlet at a time
  • Limit the use of power strips to add additional outlets; they do not change the amount of power being received from, or the capacity of, the fixed electrical outlet
  • A heavy reliance on extension cords is an indication that you have too few outlets to address your needs. Have a qualified electrician inspect your home and add new outlets as necessary (More on Extension Cords, below)
  • Have your building electrical system inspected by a qualified electrician.

Electrical Temporary Wiring (Extension Cords)

The safety of an electrical extension cord, because of its common use and practicality, is often taken for granted. NFPA statistics reveal that roughly 3,300 home fires originate from extension cords each year, killing 50 people and injuring 270 more. Extension cords can overheat and cause fires when used improperly. Please keep these important tips in mind to protect your home and workplace.

  • Avoid plugging extension cords into one another
  • Be certain that extension cords are properly rated for their intended use, indoor or outdoor, and meet or exceed the power needs of the device being used – Do NOT overload extension cords
  • Ensure that all extension cords are certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory such as UL, CSA, or ETL, and read the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Keep all outdoor extension cords clear of snow and standing water
  • Inspect cords for damage before use. Check for cracked, frayed and discolored sockets, damaged sheathing, bare wires, and loose connections. Discard the cord rather than trying to repair it.
  • NEVER use a cord that feels hot or is damaged in any way.
  • Do NOT nail or staple extension cords to walls or baseboards
  • Do NOT run extension cords through walls, doorways, ceilings, or floors. If a cord is covered, heat cannot escape, which may result in a fire
  • Make sure that cords are not pinched in doors, windows, or under heavy furniture, which could damage the cord’s insulation.
  • Insert plugs fully so that no part of the prongs is exposed when the extension cord is in use.
  • NEVER use three-prong plugs with outlets that only have two slots. Never cut off the ground pin to force a fit, which could lead to electric shock
  • Do NOT substitute extension cords for permanent wiring
  • Do NOT use an extension cord or power strip with heaters or fans, which could cause cords to overheat and result in a fire

Fuse and Circuit Breaker Information

Fuses and circuit breakers protect an overloaded electrical circuit by interrupting the flow of electricity, but there are many variations that offer different levels of protection. The ESFI developed Fuse and Circuit Breaker chart below will help determine what you have in your home or business, and whether or not you should consider consulting an electrician for an upgrade.

Commonly found in structures built over 55 years agoBegan appearing in structures built in the 1960’sFirst-generation AFCI protection required by the 1999 National Electrical Code (NEC)The 2005 NEC phased out Branch/Feeder AFCIs as of January 1, 2008 for new construction and remodels. Today most circuits should have AFCI protectionThe first GFCI breaker was introduced around 1968 and the first receptacle type in 1972
Basic Fire PreventionBasic Fire PreventionModerate Fire PreventionEnhanced Fire PreventionPrevents Shocks and Electrocution
Uses a filament that melts when overloadedTrips when an electrical current exceeds levels determined by the breaker’s ratings.Trips when a parallel arc between the hot and neutral conductors is detectedProvides same protection as Branch/Feeder AFCIs and detects lower level series arcing in both branch circuits and power supply cordsTrips when an unwanted path occurs between an electrical current and a grounded element. Recommended on circuits that could come in contact with water
Must replace with fuse of the same rating if blownCan be reset and reused after tripping
Use of an oversized fuse, i.e. a 30 amp fuse in a 20 amp circuit is a dangerous fire hazard. Inspection by a qualified electrician is recommendedFrequent trips of a breaker indicate a problem and should be inspected by a qualified electricianParallel arcs are commonly caused by damaged or melted insulation on fixed wiring“Combination” does not mean AFCI+ GFCI. Combination equals protection from parallel & series arcingAFCI and GFCI technologies can co-exist, which together, provide the most complete protection on a circuit

FOUR IMPORTANT ADDED NOTES: (1) Label your panels so you can quickly turn off and restore electricity to a circuit when necessary. (2) All electrical distribution systems should have an electrical inspection conducted if the home is older than 40 years or has had a major addition, renovation, or large appliance added.  (3) AFCI is designed to prevent fires from electrical arcing, GFCI is designed to protect humans against electrical shock. (4) AFCI and GFCI breakers should be tested monthly following manufacturer’s instructions.

Worker (and DIY) Electrical Safety

The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) reminds those on the job to look up, look down, and look out for electrical hazards.

On average, 325 people die and 4,400 are injured each year because of electrical hazards, according to data published by the National Safety Council. Electricity ranks sixth among all causes of occupational fatalities.

The leading cause of fatal electrical incidents while on the job is contact with power lines, both above and below ground. ESFI reminds workers using ladders or scaffolds, and those carrying aluminum siding, poles, fencing and even lumber, to be aware and stay clear of power lines. Such contacts caused approximately 22 percent of the work related fatalities over a seven-year period, according to research (“Occupational Electrical Injuries in the US, 1992-1998,” published in the Journal of Safety Research).

Eliminating power line contacts with equipment such as cranes, boom trucks, forklift trucks and dump trucks could reduce workplace electrical fatalities by another 17 percent annually, the study suggests. The study also notes that construction workers, who make up approximately 7 percent of the U.S. workforce, suffer 44 percent of the electrical fatalities.

Electrical safety experts suggest that the best insulator to keep workers safe from electricity is to stay at least 10 feet away from power lines.

A Few Basic Electrical Safety Work Tips

  • Electrical shocks can kill, so don’t do repairs when you’re tired, distracted, or rushed.
  • Do not work with electricity while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or medications that affect perception.
  • Follow a routine and double-check yourself each step of the way.
  • Remember that just because hot wires are supposed to be colored and the neutral wire white, people before you don’t always follow the rules. Test, Test, Test.
  • Double-check to make sure that the appliance is unplugged before you start to work on it.
  • Turn off the circuit breaker or remove the fuse that feeds electricity to the outlet or switch you want to work on. If in doubt, turn off all power to the structure.
  • Read instructions several times until the sequence is fixed in your mind.
  • Examine cords and wires carefully so that you know which part is hot and which is neutral. Colored wires are intended for hot and white for neutral.
  • Know your plugs. The narrow prong always carries electricity; the wide prong is neutral.
  • Never work in or near water with power equipment.
  • Don’t open the service panel while standing in water.
  • Clearly label wires and bend them in different directions so that no part of your hot wires accidentally touch the other.
  • Check that the power is still off before you twist or splice wires together. Match color to color; don’t cross them.
  • Always review each step to make sure you did it right, especially before turning the power back on.


We acknowledge that electricity is a safe and convenient power source when installed and maintained properly. A qualified, licensed electrical contractor is the number one resource for evaluating the condition of your home or business electrical system. If you are not knowledgeable about electrical systems, leave it to the professional contractor to evaluate and improve. Practice common sense rules regarding electricity when using appliances and equipment. Do not fly a kite in an electrical storm.

Referenced Electrical Safety Websites

  • Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI)

Because of the expansive amount of information, workplace electrical safety is a topic that cannot be adequately addressed for this discussion. However, excellent awareness, assessment and training tools are available at the ESFI website:

As an example, the ESFI Workplace Electrical Safety Self-Assessment is an excellent tool for determining where your organization is relative to electrical safety standards, and is a learning means to improve.

The ESFI workplace self-assessment breaks out the following industries: Agriculture/Forestry, Construction, Education, Energy/Utility, Finance, Heath Care, Manufacturing, Mining, and Transportation, and others. That link is found at:


Acadia Insurance is pleased to share this material with its customers.  Please note, however, that nothing in this document should be construed as legal advice or the provision of professional consulting services.  This material is for general informational purposes only, and while reasonable care has been utilized in compiling this information, no warranty or representation is made as to accuracy or completeness.

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