Despite being categorized as leisure activities, swimming and boating can quickly become dangerous. While water-safety behaviors such as wearing life jackets and maintaining safe boating speeds have become commonplace, a serious hazard is often overlooked: electric shock drowning. It occurs in fresh water when a typically low-level alternating current passes through the body, causing muscular paralysis and eventually leading to drowning. 

“Although there are reported incidents
every year, there is a lack of awareness
about the dangers of electric shock drowning,” says Electrical Safety Foundation International President Brett Brenner. 

A 21-year-old Illinois man died in 2015 when touching a dock ladder at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. Additionally, there were at least two fatalities in Kentucky in 2013, and a pair of deaths in both Missouri and Tennessee during the Fourth of July holiday in 2012. 

Electric shock drowning deaths usually are recorded only as drowning because victims show no signs of burns.  

While a lack of awareness persists about the dangers of electric shock drowning, positive strides are being taken to combat the problem. 

In Tennessee, state legislators passed the Noah Dean and Nate Act in 2014—
a move to protect people from electric shock injuries and drowning deaths near
marinas and boat docks. The bill is named in memory of 10-year-old Noah Dean Winstead and 11-year-old Nate Lynam, who died from electrical injuries they suffered July 4, 2012, at a marina in Tennessee. 

Jessica Winstead, Noah’s mother, was the driving force behind the bill, crusading to prevent similar tragedies.
An inspection following the tragic incident found the marina did not have ground-fault circuit interrupters.  

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 a safety inspection by the state fire marshal’s office every five years. The law went into effect in April 2015. 

A similar law passed in West Virginia in 2013, three years after the death of 15-year-old Michael Cunningham. Changes to legislation were adopted in Arkansas in 2012 after several electrocutions near docks there and in surrounding states.  

The 2011 National Electrical Code addresses the dangers in marinas and boatyards by requiring the main overcurrent protective device to be GFCI-protected. However, this only applies to installations and inspections, which are recommended annually but not enforced.  

Protect yourself and your loved ones from the risk of electric shock drowning and common boat electrical hazards with these handy tips from ESFI:

  • Don’t allow yourself or anyone else to swim near docks. 
  • Avoid entering the water when launching or loading your boat. 
  • 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 as soon as possible, avoiding the use of metal objects such as ladders. 
  • Have your boat’s electrical system inspected by a certified marine electrician. 
  • 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 from potential electricity leakage.
  • Only use shore or marine power cords, plugs, receptacles and extension cords that have been tested by Underwriters Laboratories, Canadian Standards Association or Intertek. 
  • 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. 

Pool Electrical Safety

Many people want to escape spring and summer heat with a dip in a cool, sparkling swimming pool. Enjoy your swim, but don’t let electrical safety slip your mind. 

Any situation where electricity is used near water is a shock hazard. You should have GFCI protection on underwater lighting circuits, lighting around pools, hot tubs and spas. 

Safe Electricity offers the following tips to stay safe in or around swimming pools:

  • Build pools and decks at least
    5 feet from all underground power lines and at least 25 feet away from overhead power lines.
  • Do not put electric appliances within 10 feet of a swimming pool. When practical, use battery-operated appliances near swimming pools.
  • Any electric outlets within 20 feet of a pool should have GFCIs.
  • If a swimmer is in the water and feels electricity or appears to be shocked, don’t dive in. You could be shocked, too. Turn off the power and  use a fiberglass shepherd’s hook to pull the victim out of the water.
  • Don’t swim during a thunderstorm.
  • When you leave the pool, do not change the radio station or touch any electrical appliances until you are dry. Never touch any electrical appliances when you are wet or standing in water. 
  • If children want to play with sprinklers or hoses, set them up far from appliances.