warning sign reading "danger electrocution risk"

Stop what you’re doing, take the short walk to your home’s utility room and familiarize yourself with where your home’s main power shutoff is on your circuit breaker panel. Knowing—ahead of time—where this shutoff is located can save minutes of scrambling and can literally mean the difference between life and death if someone is being electrocuted in your home. (Expert consensus says NOT to touch the person being electrocuted, as the current will pass to you—shut off the source of the power first, then get help for the injured person.)

While you’re at it, make sure the panel is well lit, and—better yet—keep a flashlight handy somewhere near the panel itself. (If you don’t use the flashlight regularly, make sure to check the batteries every few months.)

Electricity can and has killed people, and (cartoons aside) anyone that has experienced even a mild electrical shock can tell you there’s nothing funny about it. (On a semi-related note, leaning over and accidentally touching the top of your baseball cap to a strand of electrified livestock fencing feels like being smashed in the head with a 2×4. There’s a lot of power running through those wires!)

When you think about someone being electrocuted at home, maybe you think of a child sticking their fingers (or an object) into a wall outlet, someone retrieving a slice of bread from the toaster with a fork, or maybe the old standby of blow dryer + sink.

However there are other, non-obvious ways for someone at home to receive an electrical shock:

  • Using a faulty GFCI outlet. These are usually installed near water (next to a bathroom mirror or in a kitchen backsplash). Outdoor GFCI outlets tend to trap moisture thus causing failure, and should be checked regularly, particularly in springtime before heavy usage.
  • Removing the base of a broken lightbulb. Turning off the light switch may NOT turn off the power to the fixture. Always turn that fixture’s power off at the circuit breaker. (You can check it with a circuit tester to be sure.) Then use a tool made specially for this purpose (buy at your local hardware store) or needle nose pliers—or, in a pinch, balled-up duct tape with safety gloves—to remove the bulb’s base from the fixture. (Tip: if overhead, use safety goggles. Small pieces of rust or glass could easily fall into your eyes.)
  • Having frayed cords on electrical appliances. These are especially dangerous if it’s an appliance that’s used near or with water, such as curling irons and personal humidifiers.
  • Using a portable heater with a melted cord. It’s very important to make sure the cord is not touching the heater itself.
  • Overloading receptacles. (This can also pose a fire hazard.)

Consider these tips:

  • Use outlet caps to keep little fingers (and the objects those little fingers are playing with) out of electrical outlets.
  • When pulling a plug from a wall outlet, always grasp the plug itself, never pull or yank the cord, and make sure your hands aren’t wet!
  • If you have appliances that are plugged in / pulled out frequently, examine them closely for separation of the plug from the cord jacket (you’ll see the exposed shielding or wires where the plug meets the cord). Even cords with strain relief will pull apart if abused. Repair or replace these immediately.
  • Fully label your breaker panel. (No, it’s not silly to put a large label with any arrow pointing to the main power switch that says “Main Power Switch”. Someone unfamiliar with your home may be the one shutting off the power switch.)

The usual reaction when seeing someone being electrocuted is to reach for them and pull them away from the source of electricity. If you take the time, right now, to think through turning the power off instead, you may just prevent a panic situation, prevent further injury, or save a life.

(And finally, while not life threatening, water can be extremely damaging, so while you’re at it, now might also be a good time to locate your home’s main water shutoff valve.)