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CHAPTER 6

EFFECT OF CURRENT
ON THE HUMAN BODY

6.1 INTRODUCTION TO ELECTRICAL SHOCK

The effects of electric currents flowing through a human body vary from little or no
perceptible effect, to the sensation of shock, to severe injury or death by electrocu-
tion. The effect of the current flow is a function of magnitude and duration of the
current. The magnitude, by Ohm’s law, depends on the applied voltage divided by
the electrical impedances of the body and other available current paths. The chances
that an electric current will exceed the level necessary for human or animal percep-
tion increase with contact duration and the voltage and decrease with the impedance
of the body. Greater time duration of exposure results in heating of body tissues, with
the attendant physical damage and destruction. Because the human body impedance
is nonlinear, voltage is a signiicant consideration in determining whether or not an
energized object will have the ability to deliver current through a body. As with human
body impedances, the effects of electrical shock on the human body are essential in
the design of inherently safe electrical systems.
Modeling the response of the human body to electrical stimuli is a complex task.
In the simplest model, two types of impedances are used: (i) skin and (ii) internal.
The skin is a layered structure, with both resistance and capacitance. The resistance
is nonlinear in voltage and time. The impedance of the interior is largely resistive,
comparable to a similar volume of saline at human body concentration. Different
types of internal tissue, muscle, and bone will have differing electrical characteristics,
which must be taken into account. The skin capacitance causes impedance to decrease
with frequency, as AC current shunts the high skin resistance.
Data on human and animal body electrical resistance under various conditions
is widely available in the literature, and consists of both original research and numer-
ous compilations of data for various applications. The most detailed combination of
original research with a literature survey is in Reilly (Reilly, 1998). Power line effects
are discussed in (IEEE, Working Group on Electrostatic and Electromagnetic Effects,
1978), while substation grounding has its own standard (IEEE, 2000). Agricultural
stray voltages are analyzed in (USDA, 1991), with the main emphasis being on
cattle, but including a chapter on effects on humans. Residential concerns, especially
swimming pools, are discussed in an EPRI guidebook for technicians investigating

Principles of Electrical Safety, First Edition. Peter E. Sutherland.


© 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

101
102 CHAPTER 6 EFFECT OF CURRENT ON THE HUMAN BODY

complaints of shocking (EPRI, 1999) and a technical brief on swimming pools


(EPRI, 2000). Major papers on electrical shock hazards and their effects by C.F.
Dalziel (Dalziel and Lee, 1969) (Dalziel, 1972) and R.H. Lee (Lee, 1971), presented
much of the important data still used today. Kouwenhoven conducted important
research at John’s Hopkins University on electric shocks from the 1930s through
the 1950s. Electrical safety information is also compiled in the IEEE Yellow Book
(IEEE, 1998), and the Electrical Safety Handbook (Cadick, Capelli-Schellpheiffer,
and Neitzel, 2000). A very useful standard, which provides compilations of much
important data, is provided in IEC 60479-1 (IEC, 2005). The UL Standard C101
(UL, 2002) on Leakage Current for Appliances provides some current limits and test
methods.
A key consideration with energized objects is that in order for electric current to
flow through the body, the body must become part of an electrical circuit. This chapter
supplies considerable detail on how currents can pass though different parts of the
body and each parameter that can impede or limit that flow of current. For example,
the same person touching an energized object may experience a shock if they were
barefoot and may not if they were wearing tennis shoes. Similarly, the perception
would be minimized if the skin were dry instead of wet, and further; there would be
a different perception if the contact mode were “foot-to-foot” versus “hand-to-foot”
or “hand-to-hand.” The following chapter provides a very detailed description of the
physiological effects of currents on the human body and details the conditions that
pose the greatest dangers for severe shock and/or electrocution. The information pre-
sented indicates that the most likely scenarios for a dangerous condition would be
that when a human subject comes in contact with an energized metallic object and
the subject is barefoot, and the ground is moist or wet as are the subject’s hands and
or feet. The hazards may be less under other conditions, such as a dry day, rubber- or
leather-soled shoes, or dry hands, but are not eliminated.

6.2 HUMAN AND ANIMAL SENSITIVITIES


TO ELECTRIC CURRENT

Human sensitivity to electric current is classiied in an increasing scale dependent on


current magnitude and duration. Table 6.1 lists some of the experimental results from
the literature for the following exposure levels.
Perception levels are based on touch or grip of dry skin. Perceptions levels do
not present a danger under normal circumstances.
Startle currents do not produce harmful effects in themselves, but can cause
injury due to reactions, such as fear and sudden movements. This is the level used to
set leakage current standards for appliances and power tools. The 0.5 mA UL leakage
current standards for appliances (UL, 2002) are set below the reaction currents.
The let-go current threshold is the point beyond which the subject can no longer
release their grasp on a conductor. Currents above this level cause involuntary muscle
contractions. If the current level is decreased, the person will be able to release their
grasp, and may suffer no ill effects.
6.2 HUMAN AND ANIMAL SENSITIVITIES TO ELECTRIC CURRENT 103

TABLE 6.1 Current Thresholds (mA) for 60 Hz Exposure

Threshold Women Men Children


Percentile 0.5% 50% 0.5% 50% 99.5% 0.5%

Perception for touch 0.07 0.24 0.10 0.36 NA NA


Perception for grip 0.28 0.73 0.40 1.10 NA NA
Startle NA 2.2–3.2 NA NA NA NA
Let-go current 6.0 10.5 9.0 10.0a–16.0 NA NA
Respiratory paralysis NA 15 NA 2–30a NA NA
Fibrillation NA NA 75a, b–100c, d NA 250a, b 35e, d
Heart paralysis NA NA NA 4000 (2) NA NA
Tissue burning NA NA NA ≥5000 (2) NA NA
a Adult, 68 kg.
b Exposure time, 5 s.
c Adult, 70 kg.
d Exposure time, 3 s.
e Child, 20 kg.
f NA: Data not available.
Sutherland, Dorr, and Gomatom (2009) Figure 11. © 2009a IEEE.

Respiratory paralysis (or respiratory tetanus) can be produced by prolonged


exposure to currents at the let-go current threshold and above. Respiratory paralysis
can cause severe pain, exhaustion, and death from asphyxiation. Some reports indi-
cate that currents as little as 50% above the let-go current threshold produce dificulty
in breathing.
Ventricular ibrillation is a stoppage of the heart caused by electric current. It
is usually fatal within a few minutes, and is the most severe consequence of electric
shock. The current necessary to produce ibrillation is related to exposure time by an
I2 T constant (Dalziel and Lee, 1969), the so-called electrocution equation:
K
I=√ (6.1)
t
where
I = current in amperes
t = exposure time in seconds, and
K = electrocution constant.
Using animal data, Lee and Dalziel extrapolated values for constant K at 0.5% per-
centiles for 50 kg adults and 18 kg children (Figure 6.1). This represents 67-107 mA
for 3 s for adults and 30-40 mA for children. The data is valid over a range of 0.083
(5 cycles @ 60 Hz) to 5 s (300 cycles @ 60 Hz). At the minimum time, the current
range is 403-642 mA for adults and 180-240 mA for children.
Heart paralysis and severe burning can result from higher currents than neces-
sary to cause ibrillation. At these high currents, ibrillation may not occur, or may be
reversed.
104 CHAPTER 6 EFFECT OF CURRENT ON THE HUMAN BODY

10

1
Time (s)

0.1

0.01
10 100 1⋅103
Current (mA)
I2t adult minimum
I2t adult maximum
I2t child minimum
I2t child maximum
Figure 6.1 Electrocution threshold current ranges for 0.5% percentile of 50 kg adults (solid)
and 18 kg children (dashed). © IEEE (2009a).

6.3 HUMAN BODY IMPEDANCE

The impedance of the human body can be broken down into the impedances of the
various body parts, resulting in an equivalent circuit for the electrical path through
the body. The various components are indicated in Figures 6.2 and 6.3. Human body
impedance is characterized as that of a bulk medium, which combines the elements
of inductance, resistance, and capacitance in one solid.
The skin resistance is dependent on the portion of the body (thicker or thinner
skin), the wetness of the skin, and the area and pressure of contact. Skin resistance is
divided into two parts, the surface layer resistance, RP , in parallel with the capacitance
and the spreading resistance RS . The spreading resistance covers the zone where the
current spreads out into the body from the contact area. Skin resistivity (RP + RS ) is in
a range of 60–1200 kΩ-cm2 (Reilly, 1998, p. 27). Skin resistance decreases with time
of contact. After approximately 20 min, the resistivity of dry and wet skin becomes
equal, at about 2/3 of the wet skin resistivity.
Skin is also subject to dielectric breakdown at an applied voltage between 150
and 250 V, and at as low as 50 V for exposures lasting several minutes. Considering
the area of a foot as 200 cm2 , the skin resistance of a single foot ranges from 0.3 to
6 kΩ. The skin capacitance varies from 0.02 to 0.06 μF/cm2 (Reilly, 1998, p. 280).
The resistance in series with the skin capacitance, RP2 , is often neglected, while the
parallel resistance, RP , is the steady-state impedance.
6.3 HUMAN BODY IMPEDANCE 105

Source
impedance

CP Skin
RP resistance
RP2 with parallel
capacitance
Voltage
source
Spreading
RS resistance

CB Body
RB resistance
RB2 with parallel
capacitance

RS Spreading
resistance

CP Skin
RP resistance
RP2 with parallel
capacitance

Figure 6.2 Human body impedance components.


© IEEE (2009a).

The internal body impedance is usually divided into regions, each of which is
assigned a percentage of the total (Reilly, 1998, pp. 37–41), as shown in Figure 6.4.
The resistance of the various body parts is proportional to the bulk resistance of an
equal size and shape of saline solution with a resistivity of 80 Ω-cm. On this basis,
the impedance of children is larger than that of adults.
Statistical rankings of adult total body impedance given by the IEC (IEC, 2005)
are shown in Table 6.2. For a typical 125 V exposure, the 5th percentile is 1125 Ω,
the 50th 1625 Ω, and the 95th 2875 Ω. These values are for hand-to-hand conduction
with dry contacts.
The IEC results show impedance decreased by 10-25% for fresh water contacts,
and by up to 50% for salt water. This effect is more pronounced at applied voltages
less than 150 V.
Data on hand-to-foot and foot-to-foot contact shows these values are reduced
by 10–30% (IEC, 2005 p. 31). The values shown in Table 6.2 are 70% of the hand-
to-hand values.
Resistance to direct currents (DC) is higher than for alternating currents (AC)
because the skin capacitance removes the parallel skin resistance RP2 from the circuit,
as shown in Figure 6.2.
Skin impedance is the most complex component of human body impedance. In
addition to the linear components shown in Figure 6.2, skin impedance is nonlinear
with respect to both voltage and time. When skin is exposed to increasing current
densities over time, the properties of the skin itself will change (IEC, 2005, p. 29).
106 CHAPTER 6 EFFECT OF CURRENT ON THE HUMAN BODY

6.1
6.9
6.9

10.9
9.9 9.9

26.4
1.3

5.1 8.7
5.1

14.1 14.1

32.3 32.3

Figure 6.3 Human body impedance


percentages. © IEEE (2009a).

These are divided by the IEC into four zones, ranging from no alterations (Zone 0)
through carbonization (Zone 3), and plotted as a current density versus time curves.
The upper limit of Zone 0 is 10 mA/cm2 at 5 s to about 5 mA/cm2 in the steady state.
Skin resistance will decrease with time of exposure, leveling off after 20–30 min
(Reilly, 1998, pp. 29–31). Short-term variations may result in distortion of sinusoidal
current waveforms.
The Stevens equation (Reilly, 1998, p. 29) describes the nonlinear voltage–
direct current relationship in dry skin as
I = aV + bV 2 (6.2)
The nonlinearity becomes dominant above the range of 2–4 V. Above 450 to 1000 V,
skin breakdown becomes signiicant. The parallel resistance RP was found to be the
major source of nonlinearities, which is expected from Stevens’ DC results.
6.4 EFFECTS OF VARIOUS EXPOSURE CONDITIONS 107

5.167
Impedance (kΩ)

4.333

3.5

2.667

1.833

0
0 25 50 75 100 125 150 175 200
Voltage (V)
Figure 6.4 Total body
Upper limit (dry) impedance ranges for
Average hand-to-hand or hand-to-foot
Lower limit (wet) contacts. © IEEE (2009a).

TABLE 6.2 Adult Total Body Impedance (𝛀) Including Skin Resistance, at Power
Frequencies for Contact of Large Surface Area, as a Function of Exposure Voltage

Voltage Percentile 5% 50% 95%


Conduction Path Hand-to- Hand-to- Hand-to- Hand-to- Hand-to- Hand-to-
Hand Foot Hand Foot Hand Foot

25 1750 1225 3250 2275 6100 4270


50 1450 1015 2625 1838 4375 3063
75 1250 875 2200 1540 3500 2450
100 1200 840 1875 1313 3200 2240
125 1125 788 1625 1138 3875 2713
220 1000 700 1350 945 2125 1488
700 750 525 1100 770 1550 1085
1000 700 490 1050 735 1500 1050
Asymptotic 650 455 750 525 850 595

Hand to Foot Impedances are Given as 70% of Hand to Hand.


IEC (2005) Table 1.

6.4 EFFECTS OF VARIOUS EXPOSURE CONDITIONS

6.4.1 Bare Feet, Wet Conditions, and Other Variations


Resistance of footwear has a considerable impact on total body resistance. Typi-
cal shoe resistances (Lee, 1971 Figure 1) are 5–10 kΩ for wet leather soles and
100–500 kΩ for dry. Rubber soles have resistances of over 20 MΩ.