A Little Prevention Can Save Someone’s Life

Electric Shock Drowning

Summertime usually means relaxation, family time, and fun in the water.

But things can potentially turn sour when people decide to swim too close to marinas and private docks. When not maintained, the electrical systems that provide power to watercraft have the potential to leak electrical current into the water.

In 2012, tragedy struck two vacationing families. It was July 4, and brother and sister Alexandra and Brayden Anderson were with their family at the Lake of the Ozarks, MO.  Seven hundred miles away, friends Noah Winstead and Nate Lynam and their families were celebrating at Bean Station, TN. When the children decided to go swimming in these fresh-water lakes, all received an electrical shock. One died instantly, two were pronounced dead at a nearby hospital, and the other child died the following day. According to local press reports, seven other swimmers were injured by the electrical current in the water near the area Noah died.

After investigation, the causes of all these deaths were attributed to Electric Shock Drowning (ESD). The source of the electrical leak was 120-volt current coming from a nearby boat or electrical system.

Electric Shock Drowning

ESD is the result of the passage of a typically low level AC current through the body with enough force to cause paralysis, rendering the victim unable to help himself / herself, eventually resulting in drowning of the victim.  Higher levels of AC current in the water will also result in electrocution. ESD has become the catch-all phrase that encompasses all in-water shock casualties and fatalities.

This is a danger facing not just the general public. Many industrial companies own and maintain docking facilities as well. Because they are moving and working around water, employees such as dockworkers, divers, and general contract workers are at risk for electric shock drowning if electrical equipment in not inspected regularly and repaired immediately after a problem is detected. The standard to follow for these facilities is NFPA 307, Standard for the Construction and Fire Protection of Marine Terminals, Piers, and Wharves.

Electrical Standards in Outdoor, Wet Locations

The National Electric Code (NEC), Article 555, covers the installation of wiring and equipment at piers, wharves, docks, marinas, and other areas that repair, berth, launch, store, or fuel small craft. (“Small craft” is not defined by the NEC but is based on NFPA 303, which lists recreational and commercial boats, yachts, and other craft that do not exceed 300 gross tons as small craft.) In the informational notes under 555.1, NEC states, “Electrical installations on docks and piers located at a single-family dwelling are not subject to the requirements of Article 555. However, all requirements in Chapters 1 through 4 for these outdoor, wet locations are applicable.”

Let’s go to NEC 210.8(A): In dwelling units, “All 125-volt, single-phase, 15- and 20-ampere receptacles installed in locations specified…[must] have ground-fault circuit-interrupter protection…”, with “outdoors” and “boathouses” as two of the locations on the list. In 210.8(B), the same requirement is stated for “other than dwelling units” in an outdoor location.

NFPA 303, Fire Protection Standard for Marinas and Boatyards, addresses the construction and operation of marinas and related facilities (boatyards, yacht clubs, and docking facilities), as well as in facilities where boats are stored on land. The standard includes maintenance of fire-fighting equipment and systems, and electrical wiring and equipment. NFPA 303 requires annual inspections of electrical wiring at marinas and annual inspections of boats that are plugged into the marina’s electrical power to check for stray currents.

In Canada, the CE Code Part I Subrule 78-052 covering receptacles installed outdoors or on fixed or floating piers, docks, or wharves has been revised. The exception for receptacles supplying shore power to boats was deleted. All 125-V, 15- and 20-amp receptacles installed on fixed or floating piers, docks, or wharves will now be required to be protected by a ground-fault circuit interrupter of the Class A type. The rationale for these changes was to address a shock hazard when wiring systems supplying shore power become damaged inadvertently.

State Laws

Earlier this year, the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office began the first-ever inspections of the electrical wiring and equipment of Tennessee’s more than 300 public marinas and docks. The inspections began with the passage of Senate Bill No. 1954/House Bill No. 1892 – known as the Noah Dean and Nate Act. This bill’s intent was to “lessen the likelihood of electric shock drowning near marinas and boat docks.”

In 2014, the West Virginia House and Senate unanimously voted to make into law the Michael Cunningham Act. The intent of the Act was to eliminate or significantly reduce ESD.

The laws in both states require GFCI’s to be installed at public docks and marinas and regular inspections to take place for each facility’s electrical supply (every year in Tennessee and every three years in West Virginia). Additionally, permanent signs must be posted warning people not to swim within 100 yards of the dock or marina.

Slowly Heading in the Right Direction

It seems that steps are being made in the right direction, albeit at a slow pace, to address and regulate safety wherever electricity is close to a recreation or commercial water area. Product engineering can and should alleviate many potentials for human error during installation, but these innovations take time and money before they make it to market.

The responsible thing to do would be to have electrical systems regularly inspected by an electrician with current ABYC (American Boat and Yacht Council) Electrical Certification or by an ABYC Certified Technician to make sure the systems are operating safely, whether it’s at a public facility or a private dock. Be aware of the dangers, educate others, look for signs of lack of electrical maintenance, bring those issues to the attention of the owner or manager of the dock or marina, and take precautions. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Ken Sellars

Ken Sellars

Ken Sellars is an instructor of electrical safety, NEC, Grounding/Bonding and Arc Flash Safety courses nationwide. Read more about Ken.

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