Section 7G: Electrical Safety

Electrically powered equipment, such as hot plates, stirrers, vacuum pumps, electrophoresis apparatus, lasers, heating mantles, ultrasonicators, power supplies, and microwave ovens are essential elements of many laboratories. These devices can pose a significant hazard to laboratory workers, particularly when mishandled or not maintained. Many laboratory electrical devices have high voltage or high power requirements, carrying even more risk. Large capacitors found in many laser flash lamps and other systems are capable of storing lethal amounts of electrical energy and pose a serious danger even if the power source has been disconnected.

Electrical Hazards

The major hazards associated with electricity are electrical shock and fire. Electrical shock occurs when the body becomes part of the electric circuit, either when an individual comes in contact with both wires of an electrical circuit, one wire of an energized circuit and the ground, or a metallic part that has become energized by contact with an electrical conductor.

Electrical Hazards

The severity and effects of an electrical shock depend on a number of factors, such as the pathway through the body, the amount of current, the length of time of the exposure, and whether the skin is wet or dry. Water is a great conductor of electricity, allowing current to flow more easily in wet conditions and through wet skin. The effect of the shock may range from a slight tingle to severe burns to cardiac arrest. The chart below shows the general relationship between the degree of injury and amount of current for a 60-cycle hand-to-foot path of one second's duration of shock. While reading this chart, keep in mind that most electrical circuits can provide, under normal conditions, up to 20,000 milliamperes of current flow

Current Reaction
1 Milliampere Perception level
5 Milliamperes Slight shock felt; not painful but disturbing
6-30 Milliamperes Painful shock; "let-go" range
50-150 Milliamperes Extreme pain, respiratory arrest, severe muscular contraction
1,000-4,300 Milliamperes Ventricular fibrillation
10,000+ Milliamperes Cardiac arrest, severe burns and probable death

In addition to the electrical shock hazards, sparks from electrical equipment can serve as an ignition source for flammable or explosive vapors or combustible materials.

Power Loss

Loss of electrical power can create hazardous situations. Flammable or toxic vapors may be released as a chemical warms when a refrigerator or freezer fails. Fume hoods may cease to operate, allowing vapors to be released into the laboratory. If magnetic or mechanical stirrers fail to operate, safe mixing of reagents may be compromised.

Preventing Electrical Hazards

There are various ways of protecting people from the hazards caused by electricity, including insulation, guarding, grounding, and electrical protective devices. Laboratory workers can significantly reduce electrical hazards by following some basic precautions:

  • Inspect wiring of equipment before each use. Replace damaged or frayed electrical cords immediately.
  • Use safe work practices every time electrical equipment is used.
  • Know the location and how to operate shut-off switches and/or circuit breaker panels. Use these devices to shut off equipment in the event of a fire or electrocution.
  • Limit the use of extension cords. Use only for temporary operations and then only for short periods of time. In all other cases, request installation of a new electrical outlet.
  • Multi-plug adapters must have circuit breakers or fuses.
  • Place exposed electrical conductors (such as those sometimes used with electrophoresis devices) behind shields.
  • Minimize the potential for water or chemical spills on or near electrical equipment.


All electrical cords should have sufficient insulation to prevent direct contact with wires. In a laboratory, it is particularly important to check all cords before each use, since corrosive chemicals or solvents may erode the insulation.

Damaged cords should be repaired or taken out of service immediately, especially in wet environments such as cold rooms and near water baths.


Live parts of electric equipment operating at 50 volts or more (i.e., electrophoresis devices) must be guarded against accidental contact. Plexiglas shields may be used to protect against exposed live parts.



Only equipment with three-prong plugs should be used in the laboratory. The third prong provides a path to ground for internal electrical short circuits, thereby protecting the user from a potential electrical shock.

Circuit Protection Devices

Circuit Protection Devices

Circuit protection devices are designed to automatically limit or shut off the flow of electricity in the event of a ground-fault, overload or short circuit in the wiring system. Ground-fault circuit interrupters, circuit breakers and fuses are three well-known examples of such devices.

Fuses and circuit breakers prevent over-heating of wires and components that might otherwise create fire hazards. They disconnect the circuit when it becomes overloaded. This overload protection is very useful for equipment that is left on for extended periods of time, such as stirrers, vacuum pumps, drying ovens, Variacs and other electrical equipment.

The ground-fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI, is designed to shutoff electric power if a ground fault is detected, protecting the user from a potential electrical shock. The GFCI is particularly useful near sinks and wet locations. Since GFCIs can cause equipment to shutdown unexpectedly, they may not be appropriate for certain apparatus. Portable GFCI adapters (available in most safety supply catalogs) may be used with a non-GFCI outlet.


In laboratories where volatile flammable materials are used, motor-driven electrical equipment should be equipped with non-sparking induction motors or air motors. These motors must meet National Electric Safety Code (US DOC, 1993) Class 1, Division 2, Group C-D explosion resistance specifications. Many stirrers, Variacs, outlet strips, ovens, heat tape, hot plates and heat guns do not conform to these code requirements.

Avoid series-wound motors, such as those generally found in some vacuum pumps, rotary evaporators and stirrers. Series-wound motors are also usually found in household appliances such as blenders, mixers, vacuum cleaners and power drills. These appliances should not be used unless flammable vapors are adequately controlled.

Although some newer equipment have spark-free induction motors, the on-off switches and speed controls may be able to produce a spark when they are adjusted because they have exposed contacts. One solution is to remove any switches located on the device and insert a switch on the cord near the plug end.

Safe Work Practices

The following practices may reduce risk of injury or fire when working with electrical equipment:

  • Avoid contact with energized electrical circuits.
  • Use guarding around exposed circuits and sources of live electricity.
  • Disconnect the power source before servicing or repairing electrical equipment.
  • When it is necessary to handle equipment that is plugged in, be sure hands are dry and, when possible, wear nonconductive gloves and shoes with insulated soles.
  • If it is safe to do so, work with only one hand, keeping the other hand at your side or in your pocket, away from all conductive material. This precaution reduces the likelihood of accidents that result in current passing through the chest cavity.
  • Minimize the use of electrical equipment in cold rooms or other areas where condensation is likely. If equipment must be used in such areas, mount the equipment on a wall or vertical panel.
  • If water or a chemical is spilled onto equipment, shut off power at the main switch or circuit breaker and unplug the equipment.
  • If an individual comes in contact with a live electrical conductor, do not touch the equipment, cord or person. Disconnect the power source from the circuit breaker or pull out the plug using a leather belt.

High Voltage or Current

Repairs of high voltage or high current equipment should be performed only by personnel trained to repair high voltage/current circuitry.

Altering Building Wiring and Utilities

Any modifications to existing electrical service in a laboratory or building must be approved through a work order and completed by Baylor Facility Services.

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