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VOL. 11 NO. 7
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Reduce ESD risks

6 ways to prevent electric shock drowning

Be safe from ESD

While swimming deaths due to electricity fall into two categories, electrocution and electric shock drowning, both can be prevented the same way.

Electrocution can happen in fresh- or saltwater when swimmers make contact with energized metal dock fittings, boats or other structures due to faulty alternating current wiring.

ESD occurs when alternating current gets into freshwater from faulty wiring and passes through a swimmer, causing paralysis or even sudden death. With ESD a swimmer does not need to be touching a boat or dock structure, and even small amounts of electricity can be incapacitating and lead to drowning.

The risk of ESD is greatest in fresh- or brackish water, so some areas such as estuaries or rivers may only be in the danger zone after heavy rains. In saltwater, electrical current takes the path of least resistance, bypassing swimmers. Unlike a drowning swimmer, who typically can’t yell out for help because their mouth is mostly underwater, an ESD victim is often confused about what is happening; may be able to shout; and will feel numbness, tingling, pain, and paralysis. Tingling in the swimmer’s body is one of the early warning signs of ESD.

Here are six tips to help reduce the risks of electrocution or ESD:

  1. Never swim around boat docks that use electricity.
  2. Post “no swimming” signs.
  3. Have a qualified electrician with experience in dock electrical service inspect your private dock annually.
  4. Install ground-fault protection on your boat and private dock.
  5. Ask your marina if it has installed ground-fault protection, and if the electrical system is inspected and tested annually-just in case someone falls overboard. No one should ever swim in a marina.
  6. Periodically test your boat for electrical leakage into the water.

What do you do if you see a distressed person in the water near a boat dock? First, don’t jump in. Shut off power to the dock at the breaker panel, and if equipped, disconnect any power cable to the vessel. If power cannot be shut down, follow the “reach, throw, row, but don’t go” mantra by using an oar, boat hook or throw a floatation device to reach the stricken person.

To learn more about ESD, go to the BoatUS Electric Shock Drowning Resource Center.

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