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Electric Shock Drownings: The Invisible Danger to Swimmers, Boaters

There are key steps to prevent a problem that largely occurs around docks, marinas and running boats in freshwater lakes, rivers and ponds.

Boating. Lakes. Rivers.

There are likely no better words for those enjoying the water while beating the heat this summer

Ground Fault and Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupters won’t instantly ring the same bell for many, but they should to dock, marina and boat owners.

The reason?

Their ability to safely protect swimmers in freshwater lakes, ponds or rivers from a little known and invisible danger known as electric shock drownings. Two of these drownings — which occur when leaking voltage from a boat, dock or marina incapacitates nearby swimmers — happened recently in New Jersey and Ohio. There are few, if any, reliable statistics since electricity usually isn’t considered in most drownings.

“Unfortunately, many people don’t become aware of these dangers until there’s a tragedy,” said Andrew S. Martinez, Southern California Edison’s vice president of Safety, Security & Business Resiliency.

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters — designed to safely keep electricity out of the water — should be installed on all marinas and docks and tested monthly to make sure they are functional. 

To prevent electric shock drownings, safety experts recommend annual inspections of docks, marinas and boats by American Boat and Yacht Council certified marine electricians as well as the installation of Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters on all marinas and docks and Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupters on all boats. People should also exercise caution in swimming around docks and marinas equipped with electricity and running boats. 

“Both devices are designed and equipped to safely keep electricity out of the water,” said Martinez.

And why is it more of a freshwater problem? Though electric shock drownings can occur in salt water, the risks are lower because salt water has high conductivity and low resistance — meaning leaking current usually goes around a human body to stay in low-resistant water.

In freshwater, however, with its low conductivity and high resistance, the body conducts electricity better than the water itself.

Only 10 milliamps, or 1/50th of the amount used by a 60-watt lightbulb can cause paralysis and drowning, according to the Electric Safety Foundation International.

Water and electricity simply don’t mix, something that would-be rescuers should heed as well.

“If you think an electric shock drowning might be taking place, turn the power off, throw a life ring and call 911,” said Martinez. “Don’t enter the water.”

Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Fact Box:

  • Have boats, docks and marinas inspected annually by an American Boat and Yacht Council certified marine electrician.
  • Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters should be installed on all docks and marinas.
  • Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupters should be installed on all boats.
  • Test the circuit interrupters monthly, per the manufacturer’s specifications.
  • If you suspect an electric shock drowning, turn off all power, but never enter the water.