From coffee makers to fax machines, appliances that run on electricity are everywhere around us. Most of the time, we don’t care about the direct current that makes them work. But every year, 1,000 people die from electrical accidents. Everything from contact to a fallen power line to plugging in a faulty Christmas string of lights can cause severe burns to the skin and damage muscles, nerves and internal organs.
Young children often get burns in their mouths when chewing on an electrical cord or playing with a plug. Knowing what to do in the event of such an accident can limit the extent of the burn and potentially save a life.
What to do
Don’t touch anything until you’ve assessed the situation. If the victim is still in contact with the electrical source, touching it could put you in danger of death. If possible, turn off the power source. Unplug the unit or turn off the main power to the building. Do not rely on the switch on the device, which could be defective.
If you are unable to shut off the power, you must quickly – and carefully – separate the victim from the power source. Stand on a pile of clothes or newspapers, a rubber mat, a book, or other insulating material. Using a broomstick, plastic mop handle, wooden chair, rope, or other non-conductive object, separate the victim from the source of electricity ( non-conductive objects can be anything cardboard, plastic, or wood; a wooden baseball bat or a thin branch.) Be sure to keep these materials dry. Do NOT touch the victim with your hands or anything wet or metal.
One caveat: If you determine that the victim is still in contact with high voltage current from a broken power line, do not attempt to touch them at all. Stay at least 20 feet away and call 911. Tell the 911 operator to contact the power company to have the power cut off immediately. Do not approach or touch the victim until you are sure the power has been turned off. Once you are sure that the power has stopped, immediately begin first aid in the event of an electric shock.
How to perform first aid
Assess the victim’s condition and check his breathing. If breathing has stopped, call 911 and begin CPR immediately. If the person is breathing but is unconscious, check for burns. These can be present at both the entry and exit sites of electric current, so check the whole body. Cover burns with sterile gauze dressings, if available, or a clean cloth. Do not put heavy blankets or towels over the burns, as their weight could cause pain. Treat minor burns as you would any type of burn. If the injury is severe, however, do not attempt to cool the burn or apply ointment or oil to it.
A person with an electrical burn should see a doctor immediately, even if the skin does not appear injured or the wound does not appear deep. Electrical burns often cause serious injuries inside the body that may not be noticeable on the skin. If in doubt, call 911, even if the victim is conscious and says they are fine. Electrical burns are often deeper and more severe than they appear.
While you are waiting for help, check to see if the victim is weak or showing signs of shock, including pale or clammy skin and a rapid pulse. If so, raise their legs slightly, cover them with a light blanket, and wait for help.
If someone is struck by lightning, call 911 or immediately take the victim to an emergency center. If the person is not breathing, start first aid, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). You can hit a lightning victim immediately. His body will not conduct electricity.
American Medical Association. First aid and emergency care manual.
American College of Emergency Physicians. First aid manual.
The American Red Cross First Aid and Safety Manual.
Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention. National Farm Safety Database.
Electrical injury. Medline. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000053.htm
Burns: Treat burns. American Academy of Family Physicians