ASEM Director Discusses Electric-Shock Drowning and How to Keep Swimmers Safe

A danger that you can’t see or hear — electric shock in water — can easily go undetected. Electricity is deadly and often discovered only after it is too late.

When alternating current of electricity is running through freshwater bodies, such as pools and lakes, there is risk that a person could succumb to electric shock drowning.

Donald Burke, Ph.D., director of Advanced Safety and Engineering Management, a concentration in the School of Engineering's Master of Engineering Program, explains.

“Electric shock drowning can occur in any fresh body of water, and anywhere you may have an electrical device that has faulty or damaged wiring, and equipment can cause the body of water to become energized,” Burke said. “Then, when the human body comes into contact with that energized body of water, it overwhelms our body’s natural electrical signals that control our muscles.”

According to Burke, depending on the current level, a person could experience anything from tingling all the way to paralysis and cardiac arrest — potentially causing electric shock drowning and, if the level is high enough, electrocution.

Following some simple steps when adding electricity to a structure that is near a body of fresh water, and remaining vigilant in testing it, is a key to preventing the possibility of electric shock drowning.

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