Electricity travels in closed circuits, normally through a conductor. But sometimes a person’s body — an efficient conductor of electricity — mistakenly becomes part of the electric circuit. This can cause an electrical shock. Burns are the most common shock-related injury. An electrical accident can result in an electrical burn, arc burn, thermal contact burn or a combination of burns.
Electrical burns are among the most serious injuries and require immediate medical attention. They occur when electric current flows through tissues or bone, generating heat that causes tissue damage. It is important to keep in mind when treating a person for electrical burns to first make sure that they are no longer in contact with the electrical source that caused them harm because touching them may then pass the current through to you. Turn off the source of electricity and then after securing your own safety, check for signs of circulation, pulse, coughing, breathing, or movement, if none can be found begin to perform CPR. If the person is breathing, cover any burned areas with a sterile gauze bandage, if available, or a clean cloth. Don’t use a blanket or towel, because loose fibers can stick to the burns.
Arc or flash burns result from high temperatures caused by an electric arc or explosion near the body. These burns should be promptly treated. Once an arc flash injury has occurred de-energize the electricity source. If the victim is on fire smother or douse the flames to extinguish them. Tell the victim not to move as this could make injuries worse. If person is unconscious perform CPR. Run cool, not cold water over the burns. Do not apply creams, ointments or ice. After the burn has been cooled, cover it with a clean dry cloth. Keep the victim warm. Do not give the victim any food or water and ALWAYS have them see a doctor even if they seem fine, they may have suffered from internal injuries that wont be apparent until later.
Thermal contact burns are caused when the skin touches hot surfaces of overheated electric conductors, conduits or other energized equipment. Thermal burns can also be caused when clothing catches on fire, as can occur when an electric arc is produced. The treatment for this type of burn will depend on the severity of it. In most cases it is important to cool the burn area by running it under cool not cold water, then protect the burn by covering it loosely with sterile non-adhesive bandage. For those who have suffered more severe burns monitor them for shock by covering them with a coat or blanket and elevating the burn area above the heart until emergency responders arrive.
In addition to shock and burn hazards, electricity poses other dangers. For example, arcs that result from short circuits can cause injury or start a fire. Extremely high-energy arcs can damage equipment, causing fragmented metal to fly in all directions. Even low-energy arcs can cause violent explosions in atmospheres that contain flammable gases, vapors or combustible dusts.
As always it is important to note to only help in treating a victim if you have been properly trained. Always call 911 when an accident occurs and follow their directions.
The ‘Freezing’ Effect
When a person receives an electrical shock, sometimes the electrical stimulation causes the muscles to contract. This “freezing” effect makes the person unable to pull free of the circuit. This is extremely dangerous because it increases the length of exposure to electricity and the current can cause blisters, which reduces the body’s resistance and increases the current. The longer the exposure, the greater the risk of serious injury. Longer exposures at even relatively low voltages can be just as dangerous as short exposures at higher voltages. Low voltage does not imply low hazard. In addition to muscle contractions that cause freezing, electrical shocks can also cause involuntary muscle reactions. These reactions can result in a wide range of injuries such as collisions, falls, bruises, bone fractures and even death.