Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on September 1, 2017.

The Danger Below

A new landmark study brings together everything we know about electric shock drowning. Next step: devise a plan to eliminate the hazard.

BY JESSE ROMAN

A couple of years ago while on vacation, Casey Grant was handed a tourist brochure that made him cringe. On the cover, two kids hung in the air above the water after leaping off a marina dock, an electrical meter clearly visible in the background.

Related Content

Watch Casey Grant, executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, discuss the problem of ESD and how NFPA is responding.


Read the proceedings from the 2015 FPRF workshop, “Marina Shock Hazard Research Planning.”


Read the 2015 NFPA Journal feature story on ESD, “Troubled Waters”


Read the full FPRF report released in August, “Marina Risk Reduction.”

Most people probably wouldn’t find the image objectionable, but Grant, executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, was primed. He had just returned from leading a strategizing workshop on how to stop a surge of recent electric shock drowning (ESD) deaths, and in his hands he held tangible evidence of how much work still needed to be done.

“It’s a problem that has clearly gone over the heads of most people,” he said in a recent interview, words that are as true today as they were two years ago.

Like tinder and fire, water and electricity can be a dangerous mix, and perhaps nowhere do they have more chance to mingle than at marinas. If safeguards fail, as they often do, something as simple as a refrigerator clicking on in a nearby boat can send an electric current rippling through the water. If the strength of the charge itself is not enough to kill an unsuspecting swimmer, the alternative is just as bad: the electrical current paralyzes their muscles and, helpless to save themselves, they drown.

The problem has been stubbornly difficult to solve. This summer, an 11-year-old girl died in New Jersey after touching the electrified railing of a boat. Only a few days later, a 19-year-old man drowned in Ohio after jumping from his family’s boat into Lake Erie. According to his father, the young man’s body convulsed in the water before he surfaced one last time to yell, “Electricity!” More than 30 people have died this way since 2012, with at least eight confirmed ESD deaths in 2016. The actual numbers are likely much higher; autopsies may not reveal that electricity was present before death, so many official records list only drowning as the cause, making ESD difficult to track.

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While the needle hasn’t moved much toward progress in recent years, Grant said he has reason to believe that could soon change. Last month, the Research Foundation released a landmark 178-page study, called simply “Marina Risk Reduction,” which is perhaps the most comprehensive look yet at the known ESD hazards, causes, and various mitigation strategies. While the report doesn’t uncover new data, it does break new ground, Grant said. For the first time, the work presents existing ESD research through the detailed prism of risk assessment—taking into account technical, regulatory, and public awareness issues—to give stakeholders a comprehensive view of the various hazards involved and the impact that mitigation strategies would have in reducing ESD incidents.

“We identified three questions: What could go wrong? How likely is it to go wrong? And what would the consequences be?” said the study’s co-author, Brian Meacham, an associate professor of fire protection engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). “Taken together, it gives you a risk profile and a whole set of options for how to prevent, mitigate, or avoid the hazard and thereby lower the risk.”

The study is also unique in its holistic approach, Grant said. Previous studies focused on singular components of the problem that on their own could help, but are only one link in a long chain of necessary considerations. Meacham and co-author Woo Jung Park, a fire protection engineering PhD candidate at WPI, said they were impressed with the amount of quality research that had already been done on ESD but found nothing that integrated components such as public education, enforcement, marina management, research, and so forth. “The benefit of the study is that we were able to synthesize all that good work that’s out there and show how to bring it together in a socio-technical framework to come up with a reasonable set of mitigation measures,” Meacham said.

Potential mitigation strategies in the new report include technical, behavioral, and regulatory approaches. Technical options include putting ground-fault interrupters on boats and docks and decreasing the maximum allowed current strength in marinas and boats. Strategies for addressing human behavior include placing “no swimming” signs at marina docks, and the Coast Guard’s inclusion of electrical warnings in its guidelines for safe boating literature. Regulatory strategies include requiring boat owners to register their boats and identify on-board power sources. Each approach is graded low, medium, or high in terms of effectiveness, cost, and impact on reducing overall risk.

“Part of the challenge with the ESD issue is the paths to solve it are complex—there is not a simple solution,” Grant said. He listed a host of challenges: a lack of oversight at private marinas and on boats; the hostile nature of the water environment, which quickly degrades equipment and infrastructure; and an overall lack of awareness of the issue among the public and even among many inspectors, regulators, and marina owners. “That’s why we needed a more comprehensive approach,” Grant added. “This work gives us a unique perspective we had not had previously.”

Information in the report will likely be used to create more bite-sized resources to help strengthen safeguards in the many areas that could lead to ESD, Grant said. Those resources could include field guides or checklists for marina managers, electrical inspectors, boat owners, and others to identify issues such as stray currents. The report could also provide guidance to boat manufacturers, public educators, and marina owners on how best to relay electrical warnings to consumers. It will also inform an array of codes and standards, including NFPA 1, Fire Code; the National Electrical Code®; NFPA 70B, Electrical Equipment Maintenance; NFPA 302, Pleasure and Commercial Motorcraft; NFPA 303, Marinas and Boatyards; and a number of other industry standards for boating and utility companies.

Much work on ESD has also already been done or is underway at NFPA. The 2017 NEC®, for instance, included several new provisions to address ESD, including a requirement for signage at marinas to dissuade swimming. In addition, an effort to raise awareness of the issue has begun, which includes a new Web page with links to many NFPA resources, including previous FPRF studies, NFPA Journal articles, facts, and statistics, and proceedings from the workshop Grant led in 2015 that ultimately sparked the creation of the latest report.

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While there’s agreement that it’s good to see the wheels turning on the ESD issue, there’s also a recognition that the real work is just beginning. All the information in the world won’t save even a single life if it doesn’t translate into use in the real world, Meacham said.

“While we make recommendations, it’s the stakeholders in this area who must go further and develop the different strategies and implement them,” he said. “We look at this report as a starting point.”


How to Reduce the Risk

The “Marina Risk Reduction” report identifies several strategies the authors believe can have at least a moderate-to-high impact on reducing the risk of electric shock drowning. Examples include:

  • Designating swimming areas away from the docks and designated boating waterways
  • Posting signs in boats and on docks that prohibit swimming in both public and private marinas
  • Licensing and registering boats and identifying and listing power sources and requirements
  • Providing an isolation transformer at the dock, and using power pedestals and ground-fault circuit interrupters at marinas
  • Consistent regulation of boats and docks with penalties for noncompliance
  • Providing more education to marina employees and inspectors
  • Requiring permits for electrical equipment installation
  • Frequent inspections by the Coast Guard or other agencies of new and existing boats
  • A public safety communication campaign targeted toward boat owners, and public and private marina and dock users.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: iStockPhoto