Summer Advisory: Beware of Electric Shock Drowning

Summer Advisory: Beware of Electric Shock Drowning

This piece was originally published in the July 2016 issue of electroindustry.

Julie Chavanne, Communications Director, ESFI

Summer is the peak time for water-based leisure activities, and despite the fact that swimming and boating are recreational by nature, the age-old caution that water and electricity don’t mix must be strictly enforced. Each year, lives are lost due to a serious hazard that is still not widely understood: electric shock drowning (ESD). Known as the invisible killer, ESD occurs in fresh water when a typically low-level alternating current passes through the body, causing muscular paralysis and eventual drowning.

In May 2016, ESD claimed the life of 15-year-old Carmen Johnson, who died at her family’s vacation home in Alabama after jumping off a dock into water that had been electrified due to a faulty light switch. She was electrocuted when she touched a metal ladder her father lowered into the water after she had appeared to be in distress.

While ESD deaths continue to occur, several states are taking positive strides to combat the problem. In 2014, Tennessee passed the Noah Dean and Nate Act, named in memory of two boys who died from electrical injuries they suffered on July 4, 2012, at a marina. An inspection following the tragedy found that the marina did not have ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), a critical safeguard that prevents instances of electrocution.

Under the Noah Dean and Nate Act, Tennessee marinas must install ground-fault protection, post notices about the danger of electrical leakage into waters surrounding a marina, and undergo safety inspections by the state fire marshal. West Virginia passed a similar law in 2013, and Arkansas enacted legislation in 2012 after several electrocutions near docks in and around that state.

In Missouri, the Alexandra and Brayden Anderson Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Act, named after siblings who were electrocuted while swimming, is being considered in the state legislature.

The 2011 National Electrical Code® requires GFCI protection in marinas and boatyards. Inspections are recommended annually but not enforced in states that have not passed legislation to address the ESD problem.

ESFI offers the following tips to common boat electrical hazards:

  • Don’t allow anyone to swim near docks. Avoid entering the water when launching or loading your boat.
  • Always maintain a distance of at least 10 feet between your boat and nearby power lines.
  • If you feel a tingle while swimming, the water may be electrified. Get out, avoiding the use of metal objects such as ladders.
  • Have your boat’s electrical system inspected and upgraded by a certified marine electrician who is familiar with NFPA 303 and NFPA 70.
  • Have GFCIs installed on your boat and test them once a month.
  • Consider having equipment-leakage circuit interrupters installed on boats to protect nearby swimmers.
  • Only use shore or marine power cords, plugs, receptacles, and extension cords that have been tested by a national laboratory (e.g., UL, CSA, or ETL).
  • Never use cords that are frayed or damaged or that have had the prongs removed or altered.
  • Never stand or swim in water when turning off electrical devices or switches.

ESD may also occur in swimming pools, hot tubs, and spas. Have an electrician inspect and upgrade your these facilities in accordance with applicable local codes and the NEC.

For ESFI’s complete collection of boating and marina safety resources, visit

Read this month’s issue of electroindustry.

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