CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 JAY HEDKE
Kansas Army National Guard
As a full-time technician for the National Guard, I supervise two maintenance shops. I have four employees in the communications/electronics shop and five in the calibration shop. Electrical safety, grounding, CPR, first aid, automated external defibrillators and lockout-tagout of electronic equipment are important subjects in my workplace. Every day, the senior member of the team starts with a safety brief touching on these issues and more. Unfortunately, some of us don’t always approach our work at home with the same safety consciousness.
A few years ago, my kids complained about the hot water always running out during their showers. I figured I could solve the problem by purchasing a larger water heater. Our current one was getting old and hard to drain, so replacing it probably wasn’t a bad idea. I decided to upgrade our 30-gallon tank to a 50-gallon model and changed it out on a weekend.
A few days later, the kids started whining again about the hot water. I blew them off, thinking they were just making it up. There was no way the new water heater could be worse than the old one. After all, it was newer, 20 gallons larger and, in my mind, better. The following Saturday, it just so happened that I was the last one to jump into the shower. I discovered the kids were right. The shower was out of hot water, and I had to wait awhile for the heater to warm it.
Later that day, I grabbed my multimeter to see if I could figure out the problem with the new water heater. It had two heating elements in the tank — one located about a foot from the ground and the second a couple of feet higher. I didn’t bother to read the operator’s manual; I just took off both heating element covers and started checking for voltage on the leads.
I had voltage on the bottom element, but not the top element. I could not figure out why. I thought both worked at the same time to heat the 50 gallons of water, but that was not the case. I leaned against the tank to read the operator’s manual when the wiring circuit cycled to the top element, hitting me with 220 volts of electricity. The shock threw me across the utility room and into the wall. My wife heard the ruckus all the way upstairs and came running down to investigate. Fortunately, I wasn’t seriously injured.
So, what should I have done to prevent this accident? In the maintenance shop, we ensure procedures are in place to limit the amount of stored energy in a piece of equipment under testing. We use lockout-tagout procedures or make sure the two-man work rule is in place. I did not do that at home. I checked a live circuit not knowing how it was supposed to work and, as a consequence, got shocked.
In the end, I changed out the top element and we haven’t had any more trouble with hot water in our house. But this accident served as a wake-up call that we can’t be lackadaisical in our everyday lives. Those procedures that keep us safe at work also must be used at home.
Did You Know?
The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFi) has designated the month of May as National Electrical Safety Month to raise awareness about critical electrical safety topics. Visit the ESFi website at https://www.esfi.org for a wide variety of electrical safety products and information, including posters, industry codes and regulations, standards and best practices, and injury statistics.