Electrical Safety

General Electrical Safety

  • When an electrical emergency occurs, there are several survival actions that can be taken.  You should know how to trip the main circuit breaker at the electrical panel to turn off all power to the house.

  • If an appliance smells funny or operates improperly, pull the plug if it can be done safely.  If arcing burning or smoking from an appliance occurs, turn off the power at the circuit breaker and CALL THE FIRE DEPARTMENT!

  • Winds accompanying thunderstorms may knock down power lines or utility poles.  Keep people away from the area, and call the fire department.  If power lines come intact with a vehicle, do not touch it or the vehicle.  If people are inside, tell them to stay inside. If they try to exit, they may complete a grounded electrical circuit and be instantly Killed.   They must stay inside until the power is shut by the utility company.

  • If a serious electrical malfunction occurs in your home, school or workplace, it is the same as a fire. Notify others, activate the fire alarm and exit promptly.  If you are familiar with the operation of a fire extinguisher, you can use only a "Class C" fire extinguisher on an electrical fire.

  • Never set anything on or against electrical wiring. The pressure can cause the wire to become hot and instantly fuse and create a fire. NEVER PUT WATER ON ELECTRICAL FIRES ~ You can get electrocuted!

Electrical Receptacle Outlets

  • Electrical receptacle outlets in walls and floors may present shock and electrical fire hazards to consumers. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 3,900 injuries associated with electrical receptacle outlets are treated in hospital emergency rooms each year.  Approximately a third of injuries occur when young children insert metal objects, such as hair pins and keys, into the outlet, resulting in electric shock or burn injuries to the hand and/or finger.  CPSC also estimates that electric receptacles are involved in 5,300 fires annually which claim 40 lives and injured 110 consumers.
  • Older homes may have receptacles which are damaged or which, otherwise, may have deteriorated over the years.  In one case of a damaged receptacle, a woman suffered severe burns to her hand as she was plugging in a floor lamp.  Part of the plastic faceplate of the outlet had broken away, allowing the prongs of the plug to bridge from the electrical contacts to the grounded strap, resulting in intense electrical arcing.
  • Outlets also deteriorate from repeated use, from plugging-in and unplugging appliances as is often done in kitchens and bathrooms.  As a result, when plugs fit loosely into receptacles, especially the two-prong ungrounded type, they may slip partially or completely out of the receptacle with only slight movement of the attached cord.  Receptacles in this condition may overheat and pose a serious fire hazard; if covered by a curtain or drape, the fire hazard is even greater.
  • Consumers should have a qualified person replace deteriorated and damaged receptacles and, at the same time, upgrade their home electrical system to present safety standards.  The simplest and most effective method to protect against electrocution is through the installation of groundfault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) (as shown in the figure below).  If you wish to receive a copy of the Commission's fact sheet on GFCIs, send a postcard to "Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupters, Washington, D.C. 20207 ," and a copy will be sent promptly.
  • Another method of protection in the home is to install 3-wire receptacles which will accept either 2-or 3-prong plugs (shown below). This method, however, requires a grounding conductor which may or may not be available in the outlet box.  The least acceptable method is installing another 2-wire receptacle that requires the use of an adapter for accepting 3-wire plugs (as shown below). Even though the tab on the adapter may be properly connected to the cover-plate screw, the grounding path may not be adequate to protect against ground faults.


Outlets with poor internal contacts or loose wire terminals may become overheated and emit sparks.  Even a receptacle with nothing plugged into it may run hot if it is passing current through to other outlets on the same circuit. To prevent damage to receptacles, appliances should be switched-off before unplugging from a receptacle.
  • Have a qualified electrician replace damaged receptacles or those which feel hot, emit smoke or sparks, those with loose fitting plugs or those where plugged-in lamps flicker or fail to light.
  • Do not unplug appliances by pulling on the cord at an angle.  The brittle plastic face of the receptacle may crack and break away, leaving live parts of the receptacle exposed.

To protect young children, parents should consider some precautions:

  • Insert plastic safety caps into unused outlets within reach of young children.
  • Be sure that plugs are inserted completely into receptacles so that no part of the prongs are exposed.


Extension Cords

Safety Suggestions:
  • Use extension cords on when necessary and only on a temporary basis.
  • Use only polarized extension cords with polarized appliances.
  • Make sure cords do not dangle from the counter or table tops where they can be pulled down or tripped over.
  • Replace cracked or worn extension cords with new, #16 gauge cords that have the listing of a nationally-recognized testing laboratory, safety closures, and other safety features.
  • With cords lacking safety closures, cover any unused outlets with electrical tape or with plastic caps to prevent the chance of a child making contact with the live circuit.
  • Insert plugs fully so that no part of the prongs are exposed when the extension cord is in use.
  • When disconnecting cords, pull the plug rather than the cord itself.
  • Teach children not to play with plugs and outlets.
  • Use only three-wire extension cords for appliances with three-prong plugs.  Never remove the third (round or U-shaped) prong, which is a safety feature designed to reduce the risk of shock and electrocution.
  • In locations where furniture or beds may be pushed against an extension cord where the cord joins the plug, use a special "angle extension cord," which is specifically designed for use in these instances.
  • Check the plug and the body of the extension cord while the cord is in use.  Noticeable warming of these plastic parts is expected when cords are being used at their maximum rating; however, if the cord feels hot or if there is a softening of the plastic, this is a warning that the plug wires or connections are failing and that the extension cord should be discarded and replaced.
  • Never use an extension cord while it is coiled or looped.  Never cover any part of an extension cord with newspapers, clothing, rugs or any objects while the cord is in use.  Never place an extension cord where it is likely to be damaged by heavy furniture or foot traffic.
  • Don't use staples or nails to attach extension cords to a baseboard or to another surface.  This could damage the cord and present a shock or fire hazard.
  • Don't overload extension cords by plugging in appliances that draw a total of more watts than the rating of the cord.
  • Use special, heavy duty extension cords for high wattage appliances such as air conditioners, portable electric heaters, and freezers.
  • When using outdoor tools and appliances, use only extension cords labeled for outdoor use.
The Statistics:

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that each year, about 4,000 injuries associated with electric extension cords are treated in hospital emergency rooms.  About half the injuries involve fractures, lacerations, contusions, or sprains from people tripping over extension cords. Thirteen percent of the injuries involve children under five years of age; electrical burns to the mouth accounted for half of the injuries to young children.

CPSC also estimates that about 3,300 residential fires originate in extension cords each year, killing 50 people and injuring about 270 others.  The most frequent causes of such fires are short circuits, overloading, damage, and/or misuse of extension cords.

The Problem:

Following are CPSC investigations of injuries that illustrate the major accident patterns associated with extension cords, namely children putting extension cords in their mouths, overloaded cords, worn or damaged cords, and tripping over cords:
- A 15-month old girl put an extension cord in her mouth and suffered an electrical burn. She required surgery.
- Two young children were injured in a fire caused by an overloaded extension cord in their family's home.  A lamp, TV set, and electric heater had been plugged into a single, light-duty extension cord.
- A 65-year old woman was treated for a fractured ankle after tripping over an extension cord.

The Standards:

The National Electrical Code says that many cord-connected appliances should be equipped with polarized plugs have one blade slightly wider than the other and can only be inserted one way into the outlet.  Polarization and grounding ensure that certain parts of appliances that could have a higher risk of electric shock when they become live are instead  connected to the neutral, or grounded, side of the circuit.  Such electrical products should only be used with polarized or grounding type extension cords.

Voluntary industry safety standards, including those of Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), now require that general-use extension cords have safety closures, warning labels, rating information about the electrical current, and other added features for the protection of children and other consumers.

In addition, UL-listed extension cords now must be constructed with #16 gauge or larger wire, or be equipped with integral fuses.   The #16 gauge wire is rated to carry 13 amperes (up to 1560 watts), as compared to the formerly-used #18 gauge cords that were rated for 10 amperes (up to 1200 watts).

Safety with Electrical Appliances

The potential for electrical shock or fire from an electrical appliance is very real, especially when safety recommendations are not followed. Before buying an appliance, look for the label of a recognized testing laboratory such as Underwriters Laboratory or Factory Mutual. Keep space heaters, stoves, irons, and other heat-producing appliances away from furniture, curtains, bedding or towels.  Also, give televisions, stereos and computers plenty of air-space so they won't overheat.  Never use an appliance with a damaged cord, and be sure to use three-pronged electrical devices in three-pronged outlets.  These outlets may not be available in older homes, so use a three-pronged adapter, and screw the tab onto the grounded outlet box cover.  Never cut off or bend the grounding pin of the plug.  If you have a polarized plug (one side wider than the other), never file it down or make it reversible.Keep electrical cords out of the path of traffic.  If you put cords under carpets or rugs, wires can be damaged and might result in fire.  An electrical cord should never be wrapped around an appliance until the appliance has cooled.  Because hair care equipment is often used in bathrooms near sinks and bathtubs, it is extremely important to be especially careful that the appliances do not come in contact with water.  If one drops into water, do not touch it until you have pulled the wall plug.  Protect young children by putting plastic inserts in receptacle outlets not in use to keep them from putting anything into outlets.  Never put a kitchen knife or other metal object in a toaster to remove stuck bread or bagels unless it is unplugged and cooled.  Install television and radio antennas where they cannot fall across power lines. Use caution when operating a tree-pruning device or using a metal ladder around power lines.  Inspect appliances regularly to make sure they operate properly.  If an appliance smells funny when in use, makes unusual sounds or the cord feels warm to touch, repair or replace the unit.  Don't repair it yourself unless you are qualified.   Keep appliances in a cool, dry place to prevent rusting.

Safety with Electrical Space Heaters

Safety Suggestions:
CPSC recommends the following when selecting an electric heater:

  • Look for one that is listed with a nationally-recognized testing laboratory.  These heaters have been tested to meet specific safety standards, and manufacturers are required to provide important use and care information to the consumer.  On heaters that are not listed, consumers have less assurance that the safety features and operating instructions are adequate.

  • Purchase a heater with a guard around the heating element.  A wire grill or other protection is essential to keep fingers or fabrics from touching the hot element. Portable electric heaters that heat by circulation oil or water, however, usually have lower surface temperatures and may not need guards.

  • Before using the heater, read and follow the instruction for its operation and maintenance.

  • If you must use an extension cord, make sure it is a heavy duty cord marked with a #14 gauge or larger wire.  An incorrectly-sized cord may create a fire hazard.  If the heater's plug has a grounding prong, use only a grounding (three-wire) extension cord.

  • Never run the heater's cord (or any cord) under rugs or carpeting.

  • Do not leave the heater operating unattended or operating while sleeping.  Portable electric air heaters are designed for use only as temporary supplemental heating and only while attended.

  • To prevent electrical shocks and electrocutions, always keep portable electric heaters away from water. Never touch an electric heater if you or your hands are wet.

  • Do not use an electric heater as a dryer by placing clothing over it and never use it to thaw pipes.

  • Keep the heater in safe working condition.   Replace missing guards and controls at once. Never operate a defective heater.

  • Don't place the heater where children might play near it or where people might trip over or bump into it.

  • Place the heater on a level surface for stability.

  • Regardless of the type of heating system you have, install and maintain at least one smoke detector that is in good working condition each floor of your home.

The Statistics:

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that in 1994, electric space heaters were associated with 2,400 fires resulting in 80 deaths, 240 injuries and $48.2 million dollars in property loss.

The Problem:

Even though electric space heaters don't have an open flame, the heating elements of some types of electric heaters are hot enough to ignite nearby combustibles like draperies, paper, clothing, furniture, and flammable liquids.  It is, therefore, important to check surrounding objects periodically to see if they feel hot.  Refer to the manufacturer's instructions to see how far the heater should be placed from combustible materials, and for how far the heater should be placed from the floor so that carpeting or flooring materials don't ignite.  Additionally, to prevent electrocutions, always keep portable electric heaters away from water; never use them in a bathroom or near a sink. (If you must use an appliance near water, always use a ground fault circuit interrupter.)