Pull The Plug On Extension Cord Hazards

| Jim Lanz

Extension Cord Hazards

Higher Demand for Plug Space

This is the time of year, we celebrate the holiday season—along with neighbors, family, and friends—by hanging lights in and on our homes and workplaces. We wire up toy trains, light our Christmas trees, and decorate with all kinds of electric lighting and accessories. I think this is a great time to talk about the overuse of flexible extension cords, power strips, and multi-outlet adapters. All of these electrical devices provide a convenient way to bring electricity to a remote or under-serviced location.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says, “UL approved and correctly sized extension cords are only allowable in the workplace as temporary wiring not to exceed 90 days.” They also define a power strip, in any form, like an extension cord.

Misusing and Overloading Can be Dangerous

Power strip and extension cord hazards can be deadly. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that the misuse of extension cords causes about 3,300 fires each year, killing about 50 people and injuring an additional 270. Most of these fires are caused by short circuits, overloaded cords and strips, and improper routing.

Let’s take a look at the UL ratings. Most lightweight extension cords are rated at only 10 amps, and most power strips—with or without surge protectors—are rated at a maximum of 15 amps. Many imported brands are improperly labeled, so please be wary of the less expensive products.

Identify Lurking Threats

overuse of flexible extension cords, power strips, and multi-outlet adaptersTaking a look at a typical home or workplace office, we have a desktop computer (2 amps), a monitor (1.5 amps), and a scanner/printer (10.6 amps); let’s assume there is a desk lamp, radio, or another office accessory using about 1 amp.  Add this up, and we have exceeded the maximum rating of the power strip and totally overloaded a typical extension cord. Many office locations have space heaters or fans added to that strip. Now, we have a true fire hazard! Space heaters, refrigerators, microwave ovens, toaster ovens, coffee makers, and water coolers in your break rooms or kitchens can often draw more amps than a cord is rated to handle. Remember a motor on startup draws as much as four times the amperage of the stated motor rating once running.

Tips for Avoiding Extension Cord Hazards

Here are a few important tips* to remember:

  • Don’t use extension cords as substitutes for permanent wiring—temporary use only (90 days max).
  • Purchase cords approved by an independent testing laboratory such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL), MET, ETL, or Canadian Standards Association (CSA).
  • Never use a cord that feels hot or is damaged in any way. Touching even a single, exposed strand can give you an electric shock or burn.
  • Replace cords with cracks, cuts, and damaged insulation. Typically, repairs are not cost-effective and can only be done by a qualified electrician.
  • Power cords should never be nailed, stapled, or taped to the desk, wall, ceiling, baseboard, or another object.
  • When unplugging a cord, pull on the plug, not the cord.
  • Unplug extension cords when not in use.
  • Do not run extension cords through walls or doorways or under carpets, ceilings, or floors. If the cord is covered, heat cannot escape, which may result in a fire hazard.
  • Don’t coil equipment or extension cords while they’re in use. Uncoil extension cords before use so that heat can escape.
  • Avoid using extension cords when possible.
    • If you must use an extension cord, select one that is rated for the full load amps of the connected equipment or tool.
    • If more than one device is being connected to an extension cord, add the individual amp ratings of the devices together and confirm that they do not exceed the amp rating of the cord.
  • Use a three-wire extension cord only. Do not use “cheaters” or 2-wire adapters to connect to two-prong outlets. This defeats the purpose of a three-prong plug and could lead to an electrical shock.
  • Never force a plug into an outlet if it doesn’t fit.
  • Use exterior-rated cords for outside use (see label); do not use indoor extension cords outdoors.
  • A Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) pigtail is required for outdoor extension cord use.
  • Do not extend extension cords by plugging into another one.
    • Overloading can occur when multiple devices are plugged into one cord or when cords are “daisy-chained.”

*Source: CPSC, Consumer Product Safety Commission (1) Home Electrical Safety Checklist document, and (2) Holiday Season Decorating Safety Tips article.

These workplace safety standards are also clearly written in OSHA’s 29CFR 1910.334 chapter on the use of extension cords. There are many more compliance standards related to portable electrical equipment.

Have a Safe, Happy Holiday Season!

Please remember that electrical hazards are a serious violation and, more importantly, a hazard to life and safety at both our homes and workplaces. Please take a look around your home and work area to improve our Culture of Safety. For more information, reach out—as Horizon Solutions can help.

Safety Workbook