A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Electrical shock drowning is a silent killer — please be careful when boating this summer

Boats can be a great source of summer fun and leisure as 141.6 million Americans go boating every year.

According to the National Marine Manufacturer Association, there are 12 million boats registered in the US, with 173,344 of them being registered in the state of Kentucky. There are approximately 12,000 marinas nationwide, 1.1 million boat slips in the United States and in Kentucky I counted 123 marinas alone.

But with every source of fun comes with its own sources of risks and boaters, swimmers, and marina staff must be aware of dangers in and around the water near these marinas. Every summer, a hidden danger lurks and it is a silent killer that is present in our recreational waters that happen to take the lives of people every year and it is called Electrical Shock Drowning (ESD).

According to Electricshockdrowning.org ESD is the result of the passage of a typically low level AC current through the body with sufficient force to cause skeletal muscular paralysis, rendering the victim unable to help himself/herself,  while immersed in fresh water, eventually resulting in drowning of the victim. Higher levels of AC current in the water will also result in electrocution.

Although ESD can happen virtually in any location where electricity is provided near water, the majority of deaths have occurred in public and private marinas and docks. The typical victim of ESD is a child swimming in or around a marina or dock where electricity is present. ESD originates from the wiring of the dock or marina, or from boats that are connected to the marina’s or dock’s power supply.

Most of us all know that we should not consider stepping into a bathtub or swimming pool with a hair dryer or any other electrical appliance or tool that is plugged into an outlet. Well, in essence, a boat is a plugged up appliance sitting in a very large bathtub and you should treat the water around a boat as being very dangerous.

ESD can occur when marina electrical systems leak electrical current into the water.

Boats can also serve as the source of electrical leakage. Leakage can cause a shock that can injure, disable, or kill people who are in nearby waters.

If an electric fault occurs on a boat while it is connected to a marina’s or dock’s shore power and the boat or marina is not properly wired to meet current ABYC and NFPA standards, the water surrounding the boat will become electrified.

A random sampling of shore power cords in several freshwater marinas in the U.S. displayed that approximately 13% of the boats tested were leaking potentially lethal amounts according to www.electricshockdrowning.org of electrical (AC) current into the water.

Freshwater is close to 70 times more resistive than saltwater. This makes electric current leakage in freshwater marinas a major concern. Depending on the amount of current in the water and a swimmers location relative to the electrical field, a person may experience effects ranging from a slight tingle, to complete loss of muscle control, to ventricular fibrillation.

ESD is called the silent killer because there is no visible warning or way to tell if water surrounding a boat, marina or dock is energized or within seconds will become energized with fatal levels of electricity. As little as 10 milliamps 1/50th the amount used by a 60 watt, can cause paralysis and drowning.

In most circumstances victims do not immediately feel electrical current when they enter or swim in the water around a marina or dock, thus giving the victims the false impression that it is “safe” to swim. Most often, electricity enters the water when an electrical fault occurs aboard a boat. Often, the electric fault occurring aboard the boat is intermittent.

For example, the fault that places deadly current into the water may only occur when a light switch is turned on, or when a hot water heater, battery charger, A/C unit or other electrical device cycles on.  Water can appear and feel “safe” and in a split second become energized with deadly electricity.

Under the typical scenario, the victim’s muscles become paralyzed by the electrical current, he or she is unable to swim, and ultimately drowns. Unless there is a witness nearby to experience and report the sensation of electric shock in the water, the victim’s death is typically labeled a common drowning.

In the vast majority of ESD, the victim’s autopsy shows no signs of electrical injury and investigators often never learn that electricity was the cause of the drowning, but many times in the past the death is classified as an unexplained drowning.

The 2017 National Electrical Code requires all marinas and boat docks to post electrical shock warnings where electricity is used near water. It also now requires marinas and boatyards to have ground-fault protection to help prevent water electrification. If you keep a boat on a marina make sure that they have the proper GFCI protection.

If you happen to witness ESD taking place you should turn the power off, throw the victim a life ring then call 911. But whatever you do, never enter the water to try to save an ESD victim because you could become a victim too.

Electrical Safety Tips for Boat Operators:

 Don’t allow yourself or anyone else to swim near the dock or marina.
 Avoid entering the water when launching or loading your boat.
 Warn others of this hazard, because most people have never heard of ESD and are unaware of the danger.
 If you feel a tingle while swimming, the water may be electrified, stop, turn around and go back to where there where there no tingle. Then get out of the water as soon as possible, avoiding the use of metal objects such as ladders.
 Notify the owner of the property immediately, as this tingle is a sign that power to the facility should be turned off until a proper inspection has been completed.
 Regularly have your boat’s electrical system inspected and upgraded by a certified marine electrician.
 Have  Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI)  installed on your boat and insist that your marina/dock owners have them installed on the dock; and then test them once a month.
 Ask the marina/dock owner if they are having their marinas regularly inspected by qualified electricians who are familiar with National Fire Protection Association Codes: NFPA 303 and NFPA 70, and then ask for them to show you proof.
 Use “UL- Marine Listed” portable GFCIs when using electricity near water. They will decrease the chances of shock or electrocution.
 Consider having Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupters (ELCI) installed on boats to protect nearby swimmers from potential electricity leakage into water surrounding your boat.
 Post warning signs and no swimming sings to warn people of the dangers associated with swimming around any equipment powered by AC electricity.
 Only use shore or marine power cords, plugs, receptacles, and extension cords that have been tested by Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
 Never use cords that are frayed or damaged or that have had the prongs removed or altered.
 If you question the safety of your boat’s electrical system, immediately turn off the power supply at the electrical panel and do not turn it back on until it has been checked by a qualified electrician.
 Notify the marina owner of any electrical safety hazards so that they can be fixed immediately.

Be Safe My Friends!

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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