Does the Voltage or the Amperage Kill You?

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I hear the following phrase a lot

It’s the amperage that kills you not the voltage

While there is truth to the statement it is sort of like saying “it’s the size of the vehicle not the speed that kills you when it hits you”…

OK so that’s a pretty bad example, but hopefully, it gets the point across. BOTH of them are needed to cause injury or death and in the case of voltage and amperage the higher the voltage the higher the amperage.

This statement about amperage being the real danger as led to many people inaccurately believing it is the size of a panel or the gauge of wire that makes something more or less dangerous… which is 100% incorrect.

Let’s take a quick look at OHM’s law –

Amps = Volts ÷ Ohms 

The resistance (ohms) of the human body depends on a lot of factors including things like the moisture content of the skin, what other objects the current path is traveling through, what path the current is taking through the body etc…

While the resistances vary based on these factors Ohms law still holds true that when you increase the voltage you ALSO increase the amperage.

Take a look at this chart from the CDC

Effects of Electrical Current* on the Body [3]
CurrentReaction
1 milliampJust a faint tingle.
5 milliampsSlight shock felt. Disturbing, but not painful. Most people can “let go.” However, strong involuntary movements can cause injuries.
6-25 milliamps (women)†
9-30 milliamps (men)
Painful shock. Muscular control is lost. This is the range where “freezing currents” start. It may not be possible to “let go.”
50-150 milliampsExtremely painful shock, respiratory arrest (breathing stops), severe muscle contractions. Flexor muscles may cause holding on; extensor muscles may cause intense pushing away. Death is possible.
1,000-4,300 milliamps (1-4.3 amps)Ventricular fibrillation (heart pumping action not rhythmic) occurs. Muscles contract; nerve damage occurs. Death is likely.
10,000 milliamps (10 amps)Cardiac arrest and severe burns occur. Death is probable.

*Effects are for voltages less than about 600 volts. Higher voltages also cause severe burns.
†Differences in muscle and fat content affect the severity of shock.

Let’s say that a particular shock is traveling through a 20 KOhm (20,000 ohm) path in your body

At 120V this would produce a 6mA shock

At 240V it would be 12mA

At 480V it would be 24mA

It becomes clear pretty quick that higher voltage does lead to more dangerous shocks as does the resistance of the path.

High Resistance and Low Voltage = Safer

Low Resistance and High Voltage = Danger

This is why working around live electrical should only be done with insulated tools, proper PPE and in dry conditions. These all serve to keep the resistance up to reduce the likelihood of a fatal shock. The higher the voltage the more diligent you need to be.

Some people may bring up high voltage shocks from a taser or static electricity as proof that “voltage doesn’t kill”.

In these cases, the power supply is either limited, intermittent or instantaneous. This means that while the voltage is high it is only high for a very short period. Unfortunately in our profession, those sorts of quick high voltage discharges aren’t the big danger we face, most of the electrical work we do is on systems that will happily fry us to a crisp before the power supply cuts out.

A circuit breaker or fuse will never protect us because we draw in the milliamp range when we are being shocked as almost all fuses or breakers don’t trip or blow until much higher levels are reached.

Be safe around high voltage and keep your resistance high.

— Bryan

 

 

 

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