How dangerous is electricity near water?

When I was a child, we were told that we would be electrocuted if we touched an electric appliance near water, eg plugging it in or turning it on with wet hands, or if there is a bit of water on the countertop. There was even an episode of a tv program in which a woman died after turning on the light switch after getting out of the shower.

Now, people use electric appliances in wet areas and with wet hands and I’ve done so without dire consequences. Has electricity somehow become safer or were we wrong before? If the latter, why were we indoctrinated about it and when did we stop believing it?

mains supply circuits have become safer - often including ground leakage cutoffs, which turn off the power if a person touches a live wire.

Switches have become safer - if you take apart a ‘vintage’ light switch, you’ll find big strips of metal relatively close underneath the moving parts that people have to touch, and you’ll find gaps between the moving parts that could admit liquid, which could create a conductive path.

If you take apart a modern switch, you’ll often find that the conductive parts are more ‘tucked away’ inside the mechanism, and you may also find that the design of the moving parts includes membranes, baffles or overlaps so that there is no straight route for water to track from the outside to the conductive parts.

Appliances have become safer - plugs are typically moulded firmly onto the ends of cables, the appliances themselves have better electrical insulation and isolation, and often, the appliances themselves use lower voltages for many of their internal parts - so the only very dangerous part may be a small PSU where the mains power enters.

Electricity is no safer - the way we’re using it certainly is.

GFCI receptacles and circuit breakers have also made things safer. This assumes they’re working, of course. You should test them periodically.

There’s also the issue of electrical codes. They were more lax in the past, and with grandfather clauses it takes generations for the world to catch up. Ground fault interrupters have been around for many decades. But there’s still a lot of houses and appliances around now that were built in the 1960s. And back in the 60s and 70s, there were a lot of appliances around that were built in the 20s and 30s. So modern equipment might be a lot safer, but you should behave as you would around equipment built fifty years ago because there’s still a lot of it. Nevertheless, things are definitely getting safer over time.

Back in the good old bad old days, radios were often powered by a transformerless circuit. This mean that the chassis was “live” (connected to one side of the power line). This was an incredibly dangerous practice, even for the times. It meant that if the plastic knob came off, and exposed the metal shaft, there was a pretty good chance of getting shocked if you touched it. Although transformerless equipment still exists, it it now required to be double-insulated.

In most British bathrooms the main light will be operated by a cord hanging from the ceiling. This is a hangover from earlier times when light circuits were almost never earthed and wall switches were often made of metal.

These days it is against code to have a power socket within reach of someone in the shower or bath (they must be over 3 metres away) and there is no restriction on having a wall switch. However we are used to the cord, and it is quite convenient to be able to use a longer drop when the kids are small so that they can turn the light on if they need to. (or shorten it so they can’t).

The water around boat docks can be dangerous for swimmers. Most docks have lights and sometimes an outlet. Electrical on boats can energize the water too.

This article explains how things can go terribly wrong.