Preventing electrical shock drowning

Electric shock drowning (ESD) is a general term that includes electrocution and drowning resulting from an individual becoming paralyzed by stray electrical current in the water.

Through the past years, our neighbours south of the border have seen more than 100 confirmed cases of ESD, including four cases over last summer’s July 4th holiday. As detection of ESD as a cause of death is difficult, many drownings are not properly reported or investigated. Witness statements that tell of cries for help or instances when swimmers felt tingling sensations were simply recorded as drownings. The real culprit in many instances may have been the electricity in the water going undetected. While most incidents happen at marinas, there have also been cases of ESD in water fountains, irrigation ditches, golf course ponds and other bodies of water.

Many factors determine whether a victim feels only a slight tingle, is paralyzed or is electrocuted: the amount of electricity in the water; freshwater versus saltwater; the size and age of the swimmer and the distance from the power source. But how does the electricity move into the water? It starts from a source, such as a boat plugged into shore power with a compromised or damaged electrical system that feeds electrical currents into the water. Higher risks are prevalent in non-compliant installations or equipment installed in close proximity to the water. 

As fresh water is more resistant to electrical flow, a swimmer in fresh water is more likely to become a victim of ESD compared to being in salt water. The ocean’s salt makes the water 500 times more conductive than fresh water, so that the electrical current can likely pass through without focusing on the swimmer compared to fresh water. It doesn’t take very much electrical current to hurt an unsuspecting swimmer.

Prevent Electric Shock Drowning:

  • Never swim in, or near commercial marinas, docks or boatyards.
  • If you are a boat owner, keep your boat in a state of good repair.
  • As your boat ages, have it inspected by a qualified Red Seal marine mechanical technician to ensure all systems are operating properly.
  • If your boat is equipped with alternating current (AC) systems, they likely have isolation transformers or equipment leakage circuit interrupter protection. Ensure that you have GFCI’s installed on all shore power pedestals and on all dock wiring circuits.  The BC Electrical Code, Section 78 outlines the requirements for electrical installations in marinas, yacht clubs, marine wharves, structures, and fishing harbours.
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