Electrical Safety

Electricity travels in closed circuits. Shock occurs when the body becomes a part of an electric circuit. Electric shock can cause direct injuries such as electrical burns, arc burns, and thermal contact burns. It can also cause injuries of an indirect or secondary nature in which involuntary muscle reaction from the electric shock can cause bruises, bone fractures, and even death resulting from collisions or falls. Shock occurs when person in contact with ground comes in contact with any of the following:

  • Both wires of the electric circuit
  • One wire of the energized circuit and the ground
  • A metallic part that has become energized by being in contact with an energized wire.

The severity of the shock received when a person becomes a part of an electric circuit is affected by three primary factors:

  • The amount of current flowing through the body.
  • The path of the current through the body.
  • The length of time the body is in the circuit.

Other factors that may affect the severity of shock are the frequency of the current, the phase of the heart cycle when shock occurs, and the general health of the person prior to shock. The effects of an electrical shock can range from a barely perceptible tingle to immediate cardiac arrest. Although there are no absolute limits or even known values that show the exact injury from any given amperage, the table below shows the general relationship between the degree of injury and the amount of amperage for a 60-cycle hand-to-foot path of one second's duration of shock.


As this table illustrates, a difference of less than 100 milliamperes exists between a current that is barely perceptible and one that can kill. Muscular contraction caused by stimulation may not allow the victim to free himself/herself from the circuit, and the increased duration of exposure increases the dangers to the shock victim. For example, a current of 100 milliamperes for 3 seconds is equivalent to a current of 900 milliamperes applied for 0.03 seconds in causing fibrillation. The so-called low voltages can be extremely dangerous because, all other factors being equal, the degree of injury is proportional to the length of time the body is in the circuit. Simply put, low voltage does not mean low hazard.

In the event of an accident involving electricity, if the individual is down or unconscious, or not breathing: CALL 911 immediately. If an individual must be physically removed from an electrical source, it is always best to eliminate the power source first (i.e., switch off the circuit breaker). However, if time or circumstance do not allow this option, be sure to use a nonconductive item such as a dry board. Failure to think and react properly could make you an additional victim. If the individual is not breathing and you have been trained in CPR, have someone call 911 and begin CPR IMMEDIATELY!


Many common electrical hazards can be easily identified before a serious problem exists. Read and follow all equipment operating instructions for proper use. Ask yourself, "Do I have the skills, knowledge, tools, and experience to do this work safely?"

Do not attempt electrical repairs unless you are a qualified electrical technician assigned to perform electrical work by your supervisor. Qualified individuals must receive training in safety related work practices and procedures, be able to recognize specific hazards associated with electrical energy, and be trained to understand the relationship between electrical hazards and possible injury. Fixed wiring may only be repaired or modified by Facilities Services.

All electrical devices fabricated for experimental purposes must meet state and University construction and grounding requirements. Extension cords, power strips, and other purchased electrical equipment must be Underwriters Laboratories (UL) listed.

Remove all jewelry before working with electricity. This includes rings, watches, bracelets, and necklaces.

Determine appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) based on potential hazards present. Before use, inspect safety glasses and gloves for signs of wear and tear, and other damage.

Use insulated tools and testing equipment to work on electrical equipment. Use power tools that are double-insulated or that have Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters protecting the circuit. Do not use aluminum ladders while working with electricity; choose either wood or fiberglass.

Do not work on energized circuits. The accidental or unexpected starting of electrical equipment can cause severe injury or death. Before any inspections or repairs are made, the current must be turned off at the switch box and the switch padlocked or tagged out in the off position. At the same time, the switch or controls of the machine or the other equipment being locked out of service should be securely tagged to show which equipment or circuits are being worked on. Test the equipment to make sure there is no residual energy before attempting to work on the circuit. Employees must follow lock-out/tag-out procedures.

Cords and Power Strips

  • If you need additional power supply, the best solution is to have additional outlets installed by Facilities Services. Do not use extension cords or power strips ("power taps") as a substitute for permanent wiring.
  • Extension cords and power strips may be used for experimental or developmental purposes on a temporary basis only. Extension cords can only be used for portable tools or equipment and must be unplugged after use. Do not use extension cords for fixed equipment such as computers, refrigerators/freezers, etc.; use a power strip in these cases. In general, the use of power strips is preferred over use of extension cords.
  • Power strips must have a built-in overload protection (circuit breaker) and must not be connected to another power strip or extension cord (commonly referred to as daisy chained or piggy-backed). As mentioned above though, extension cords and power strips are not a substitute for permanent wiring.
  • Ensure any power strips or extension cords are listed by a third-party testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL). Make sure the extension cord thickness is at least as big as the electrical cord for the tool.
  • Inspect all electrical and extension cords for wear and tear. Pay particular attention near the plug and where the cord connects to the piece of equipment. If you discover a frayed electrical cord, contact your Building Coordinator for assistance. Do not use equipment having worn or damaged power cords, plugs, switches, receptacles, or cracked casings. Running electrical cords under doors or rugs, through windows, or through holes in walls is a common cause of frayed or damaged cords and plugs.
  • Do not use 2-prong ungrounded electrical devices. All department-purchased electrical equipment must be 3-prong grounded with very limited exceptions.

Never store flammable liquids near electrical equipment, even temporarily.

Keep work areas clean and dry. Cluttered work areas and benches invite accidents and injuries. Good housekeeping and a well-planned layout of temporary wiring will reduce the dangers of fire, shock, and tripping hazards.

Common signs of an electrical problem include: flickering lights, warm switches or receptacles, burning odors, sparking sounds when cords are moved, loose connections, frayed, cracked, or broken wires. If you notice any of these problems, have a qualified electrician address the issue immediately.

To protect against electrical hazards and to respond to electrical emergencies it is important to identify the electrical panels that serve each room. Access to these panels must be unobstructed; a minimum of 3’ of clearance is required in front of every electrical panel. Each panel must have all the circuit breakers labeled as to what they control. Contact your Building Coordinator for assistance.

When performing laboratory inspections, it is a good idea to verify the location of the power panel and to open the door to ensure any breakers that are missing have breaker caps in its place. If no breaker is present and no breaker cap is covering the hole, contact your Building Coordinator for assistance.

Avoid operating or working with electrical equipment in a wet or damp environment. If you must work in a wet or damp environment, be sure your outlets or circuit breakers are Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) protected. Temporary GFCI plug adapters can also be used, but are not a substitute for GFCI outlets or circuit breakers.

Fuses, circuit breakers, and Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupters are three well-known examples of circuit protection devices

Fuses and circuit breakers are devices that are placed in circuits to automatically break the circuit when the amount of the current flow becomes excessive and therefore unsafe. Fuses are designed to melt when too much current flows through them. Circuit breakers, on the other hand, are designed to open the circuit by electro-mechanical means.

Fuses and circuit breakers are intended primarily for the protection of conductors and equipment. They prevent overheating of wires and components that might otherwise create hazards for operators.

The Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) is designed to shut off electric power within as little as 1/40 of a second, thereby protecting the person, not just the equipment. It works by comparing the amount of current going to an electric device against the amount of current returning from the device along the circuit conductors. A fixed or portable GFCI should be used in high-risk areas such as wet locations and construction sites.

Entrances to rooms and other guarded locations containing exposed live parts must be marked with conspicuous warning signs forbidding unqualified persons to enter. Live parts of electric equipment operating at 50 volts or more must be guarded against accidental contact. Guarding of live parts may be accomplished by:

  • Location in a room, vault, or similar enclosure accessible only to qualified persons.
  • Use of permanent, substantial partitions or screens to exclude unqualified persons.
  • Location on a suitable balcony, gallery, or platform elevated and arranged to exclude unqualified persons, or
  • Elevation of 8 feet or more above the floor.


Electrophoresis is a commonly used laboratory technique that uses electrical energy to separate molecules such as proteins or nucleic acids by their size, structure, and electrical charge. Electrophoresis units present several possible hazards including electrical, chemical, and radiological hazards. Each of these hazards need to be addressed before using the units.

Chemical Hazards

Hazardous chemicals commonly used in conjunction with electrophoresis work include:

  • Ethidium bromide – mutagen, irritant
  • Acrylamide – carcinogen, neurotoxin, irritant
  • Phenol – corrosive, toxic
  • Chloroform – suspect carcinogen, toxic

Always review the Material Safety Data Sheet prior to working with any hazardous material. See the Chemical Hygiene Plan for more information on working with hazardous chemicals.

Electrical Hazards

Typical electrophoresis units operating at 100 volts can provide a lethal shock of 25 milliamps. Take the following precautions when working with electrophoresis equipment:

  • Ensure all switches and indicators are in proper working condition and that power cords and leads are undamaged and properly insulated.
  • Label equipment with the warning: “Danger: Electrical Hazard.”
  • Connect equipment to outlets with ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs)
  • Use 3-prong plugs.
  • If available, use power supplies with safety features that detect issues with the electrical circuit (e.g., noload, overload, sudden load changes, short circuits, etc.)
  • Turn off main power supply before connecting or disconnecting electrical leads.
  • With dry gloved hands, connect one lead at a time using one hand only.
  • Be sure that leads/banana plugs are fully seated.
  • Switch off all power supplies and unplug the leads before opening the gel chamber lid or reaching inside the gel chamber. Do not rely on safety interlocks.

Laboratory personnel may be exposed to thermal hazards when heating agarose solutions. Exercise caution when using a microwave to melt agarose solutions – don’t use sealed containers, and beware of superheated liquids that may suddenly and unexpectedly boil. Let hot agarose solutions cool to 50°-60°C before adding ethidium bromide or pouring into trays. Wear insulated gloves and point the flask opening away from you.

Ultraviolet (UV) light boxes and handheld lamps are often used in visualizing ethidium bromide gels and pose potential exposures to UV radiation.

Work Practices:

  • Read and follow manufacturer’s instructions for electrophoresis equipment.
  • Consult with PI prior to initial use of electrophoresis equipment. Discussion should include special hazards and safety precautions.
  • Consider using ethidium bromide substitutes.

Personal Protective Equipment

  • Wear a long-sleeved lab coat, safety goggles, nitrile gloves (latex is not effective), long pants, and closed-toe shoes.
  • Wear appropriate skin and eye protection when working with UV radiation.

Emergency procedures

  • Hazardous Waste Management: Dispose of chemicals and gels as hazardous waste. Collect in a non-leaking container labeled with a hazardous waste tag. Request pickup of hazardous waste using the EHS online system.
  • Non-Hazardous Waste Management: Some gels may be considered non-hazardous and may be treated as such. For example, ethidium bromide <0.4 wt% in non-polyacrylamide gel is considered non-hazardous waste and can be placed into a closed bag, then into trash.