I realise there is already a question on outlet covers that actually work, but I'd like to know exactly HOW your child can be harmed by the sockets.

I have put on safety plugs on all the outlets in our house, but my husband says they are a waste of time because to be shocked by the outlets, your child would need to poke all the prong holes simultaneously, which is unlikely to happen, and that covers are just another one of those baby things designed to make money but with no real purpose. Is this true? I've tried to find the answer to this to no avail. Can anyone back me up with an answer?

Nevertheless, our child's safety is #1 and I'm still keeping the covers on!! Better to be safe than sorry, I say!

asked 10 Feb '10, 22:24

Lin's gravatar image

accept rate: 10%

+1 Nice and interesting question :)

(11 Feb '10, 12:34) Emi

Looking at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mains_power_systems I am glad that our connectors are relatively childproof even without additional outlet covers. I would say "Schuko" (Type F) and similar connectors are safe, in that you need some kind of metal poker to get shocked.

(11 Feb '10, 13:08) brandstaetter

Thank you to all for your answers (Esp Adam) - all very helpful to me. Sorry for the delay in feedback as I have been away with limited net access and only just returned.

(22 Mar '10, 01:35) Lin

Note that the following applies to US electrical plugs and outlets. Many countries have recessed outlets, tamper resistant outlets, and plugs with insulation on the terminals that reduce the risk of many of these issues. However, even in the most protected electrical systems old outlets, old plugs, and broken or defective tamper resistant outlets mean that some of the following issues may still apply.

Are outlets still dangerous?

Due to the decrease of metal use in toys (plastic is cheaper), and the decrease of small parts on toys (choking hazard) then the danger of a child getting at something that fits into a socket and conducts electricity is smaller than it was decades ago. To some degree your husband is right - the risks of getting shocked are much smaller due to changes we've made in the last several decades.

But it's still quite possible. The little metal axles from many toy cars. Safety pin. Nail. Screw. Flathead screwdriver. Scissors. Pocket knife. Paperclip. Car keys.

As others have correctly pointed out it only takes a single connection to the outlet to shock. However, even the neutral and ground can shock. The electrical wiring, even when up to code, doesn't guarantee that the neutral or ground have zero potential on them. You don't have to touch more than one wire to get a shock, although the shocks from neutral and ground should be unnoticeable. (It's very rare that they have a potential on them, and even rarer that the potential is dangerously high, but I've seen it several times and know not to trust even the 'safe' terminals)

It is notable that "Electrical outlets are the most accessible source of possible shock for toddlers and young people, with almost 4,000 injuries reported each year." (source) (Another source suggests only 2,400 injuries occur per year)

The danger of some plugs

But let's assume they don't have any of those things available. If they start playing with a regular electrical plug, plugging and unplugging it, it's possible to get it partially plugged in, but still out far enough to fit fingers under and touch the plug terminals. In fact this is quite common for small children who are trying to remove a plug - they don't have the hand strength to grip the plug and pull, so they wiggle it out a little bit, then try to lever it out by putting their fingers between the outlet and the plug. In this case they can make contact with two wires, and suffer a significant burn or worse. We recently replaced all the outlets in our house (20 years old) because the plugs were too easy to plug in and remove - it should take about 5 pounds of force to plug and unplug something, more force than most small children can handle with just their fingers.

If anything, outlet covers prevent them from playing with a plug they find, and outlets in good shape should prevent very small children from unplugging devices.

Electrical shock in children

A short shock from an American 120 volt outlet is not going to kill most people. The worst case in shock is generally disrupting the heartbeat, which requires the electricity to find a path through the heart. This doesn't happen often in this situation - you really have to touch two different terminals, one in each hand to get into that position, and even then if it's a brief touch you are still likely to survive.

However, children have some severe disadvantages. The muscles which contract their hands (close the fist) are stronger than the muscles which open the hand, and the electrical potential over-rides their ability to control their muscles, so if they stick something in the socket, and touch it with their fingers or palm, their hand involuntarily contracts, and they may not be able to let go. If they can't let go, it can disrupt their breathing so they can't even cry to let you know something is wrong.

Adults and older children are usually able to overcome such a situation due to the larger body mass (ie, the electricity doesn't affect so much of the available muscle mass, so one can use other muscles to jerk themselves away) but small children may not be able to do anything, and if they could they may not know what to do.

Now this is very unusual, the situation is rarely that bad, but the inconvenience of dealing with outlet covers is, to me and my family, worth the one in a million chance that something really badly goes wrong.


Keep in mind that even great protection and constant vigilance will not be enough - teach your kids about electrical safety as soon as you see them playing with the cords and touching the covered outlets. My 3 year old came downstairs one day, obviously sad and worried, and said he had an owie, pointing to his finger. There wasn't anything obvious, so I asked him where he got the owie, and he took me to his bedroom and showed me the nightlight.

It was a nightlight that plugged directly into the outlet with a little 7 watt bulb, where the shade was integrated with the plug part. He had pulled on the shade away from the outlet, and the shade came off with the front part of the plug enclosure - the back part of the plug enclosure was still plugged in with the wiring and innards exposed, and it was on these terminals (both hot and neutral) that he was shocked.

Suffice to say I'm a bit more careful what electrical devices I place where my kids can get to them, but again the key is to teach them electrical safety. Once I told him what happened and why, he pretty much stopped playing with plugs at all after that experience. I'm just glad it was just a small shock.


answered 11 Feb '10, 06:28

Adam%20Davis's gravatar image

Adam Davis
accept rate: 31%

edited 11 Feb '10, 14:10


+1 awesome writeup

(11 Feb '10, 06:34) brandstaetter

Apparently all new and renovated construction is supposed to include tamper resistant outlets http://www.nfpa.org/displayContent.asp?categoryID=1508 according to the NEC 2008 code. Most municipalities adhere to a specific version of the NEC code (usually several years behind the latest code) so this may not be a requirement in a given area yet, but the outlets are available, and you can install them or have an electrician install them and reduce a lot of risk: http://www.nfpa.org/displayContent.asp?categoryID=1508

(11 Feb '10, 07:21) Adam Davis

Ah, and here is a rather comprehensive website dedicated to this issue alone: http://www.childoutletsafety.org/ - it includes a full page of statistics for those that wonder if safety measures are still needed today: http://www.childoutletsafety.org/datastatistics.html - I forgot about keys, and I can only laugh that male babies are more prone to this than females...

(11 Feb '10, 07:24) Adam Davis

it's worth pointing out that there is no global "regular plug". I assume you're referring to a standard US plug?

(11 Feb '10, 12:22) Rich Seller

+1 ditto brandstaetter :)

(11 Feb '10, 12:32) Emi

@Rich - I modified the wording to make it more clear, and added a paragraph at the top explaining how this might apply elsewhere, but is focused on the US.

(11 Feb '10, 14:11) Adam Davis

would upvote again if I could - thanks for adding the clarification!

(11 Feb '10, 16:18) brandstaetter

+1 and accepted! thank you for a comprehensive and very informative answer and also for sharing your story.

(22 Mar '10, 01:33) Lin
showing 5 of 8 show 3 more comments

This differs by country, of course, with some country's sockets harder to hurt yourselves with.

There are two dangers: (1) poking something metal into one of the holes, and (2) pulling a plug halfway out so that they are still "hot" and touching the exposed prong.

But you DO NOT need to touch all the prongs simultaneously to have trouble!!! It's enough to touch just one lead ("hot" or "neutral", as they are called in the US, the "ground" is probably safe) and create an electrical potential difference between that lead and something else you are conducting to (like the floor), which will cause current to flow through you.

Having a ground fault interrupter (GFI) on your outlets will significantly lessen that danger -- it's a kind of fuse that trips when a diversion of current is detected (by the hot and neutral wires not matching).


answered 10 Feb '10, 22:53

lgritz's gravatar image

accept rate: 14%

Which works great unless you happen to just grab the hot and neutral wires. Then that would be bad.

(11 Feb '10, 02:32) Scott ♦♦

I'd say 2 is the greater danger, because outlet covers don' help you there.

(11 Feb '10, 05:51) Benjol

+1 another helpful and informative answer :)

(11 Feb '10, 12:33) Emi

@Benjol -- in the USA, you are correct. Some other countries have plug designs where it's extremely difficult to hurt yourself like this -- i.e., pulling the plug out enough to touch the leads is enough to disconnect it from the power source.

(11 Feb '10, 17:17) lgritz

@scott -- Since you are almost certainly at least partially grounded, i.e., some current would flow back to the circuit and some would go to the floor or whatever, hopefully still producing a difference in current that trips the GFCI.

(11 Feb '10, 17:20) lgritz

+1 for a simple and helpful answer. thank you

(22 Mar '10, 01:32) Lin
showing 5 of 6 show 1 more comments

It does require a return path, but that does not have to be one of the other wires, and you certainly do not have to touch all 3 wires simultaneously to get a shock.

If you're in North America, you're undoubtedly familiar with the NEMA 5 outlet. All relatively new receptacles will have 3 wires:

  • Hot
  • Neutral
  • Ground

Assuming the wiring was done correctly (a big assumption), then you could touch just the ground wire safely, and since the Neutral is supposed to be grounded at the panel of your house, you could theoretically touch the neutral wire safely. I do not recommend it. The reason I would call it safe is that these are at ground potential, so there is no potential energy there to hurt you, or at least no more potential of hurting you than lying on the ground. Kind of. You need a bit of theory, but that is the main thrust of it.

That third hot wire is at 120VAC to ground. That means it oscillates between -1.414x120V and 1.414x120V in a sin wave 60 times a second. If you touch this, it will not be a pleasant experience even if you are not touching anything else. I say this from experience. Now, in order to cause you serious harm, that potential energy needs to find its way between the point it contacted you and some other potential (like ground). Most of the stuff around you including the floor are likely at ground potential, but they are not good conductors, so you will only feel a little jolt. If you do happen to be touching something conductive, like say the screw on the outlet cover, or the case of an appliance or piece of electronic equipment, or a metal pipe, or ionized water that is contacting a metal pipe, then the current will travel through you.

As Igritz mentioned, a ground fault is designed to detect current going out the hot wire that is not equal to the current in the neutral. It assumes the rest is going to ground through something else, and it shuts off the circuit at something like 5 mA, which should be low enough to save your life. (The circuit breaker is typically 15 to 20A and your body would not be a good enough conductor to get the current up that high, so it would not trip, and you would be dead before that anyway. The circuit breaker is there to protect the wire from melting and causing a fire, not to protect you from shock.) Since water and wet surfaces make it more likely for you to become a path to ground, ground faults are normally only mandatory within arms reach of water sources in bathrooms and kitchens.

Most of this would apply globally as well, except that the potential energy is sometimes higher (220 to 240VAC).


answered 11 Feb '10, 02:55

Scott's gravatar image

Scott ♦♦
accept rate: 10%

+1 very informative :)

(11 Feb '10, 12:31) Emi

+1 for the education on hot/neutral/ground. Where was I in science class?

(12 Feb '10, 05:51) Lin

Side topic that's related: this TED talk presents a new system that combines a RFID chip in plugs and reader in the outlet, with which it's virtually impossible to shock yourself because the power is not enabled without reading the proper code from a legit electrical device that's fully plugged in. Sticking metal into the holes is not enough.

A second way this adds to safety is in preventing fires from shorted or overloaded devices. The RFID on each device can tell the outlet what its maximum safe current is, so it acts as a fuse that customizes to what's plugged in.


answered 11 Feb '10, 17:28

lgritz's gravatar image

accept rate: 14%

edited 12 Feb '10, 00:22


I remember that TED Talk. It's a neat idea and solves many more problems than just child safety, but it has a huge uphill battle before it is adopted widely. It will require a government mandate and a long phase in period to even become viable. But it has a lot of promise, and despite the additional cost, I'd like to see it happen.

(11 Feb '10, 17:56) Adam Davis

For UK sockets. The Live and Neutral holes on the socket have a cover to prevent anything being stuck in the socket without an earth pin going in first.
All new (last 15 years or so) plugs have insulated sections on their live and neutral pins so it is impossable to touch anything live even if a plug is half way out of a socket.
On a non-faulty domestic installation, touching earth will result in no harm and neutral is exceptionally unlikely to cause any harm. In fact, pulling a fuse before working on a circuit only disconnects the live. Touching live if you are not earthed will not do anything either. (I know this because I accidently worked on a live circuit before, and I didn't get any shocks. Other than a big suprise when the live touched earth and went BANG!). So, with a well looked after installation and modern appliances, the risks are minimal.
Of course, if there are any faults with an appliance or socket or you have an old plug then the risks go up significantly, and not just risks for kids, everyone is at risk.
There is another risk with electricity, kids turning things on that they shouldn't. The most obvious risks come from things that are designed to get hot, like fires and cookers. Either leading to burns or a fire. But kids are un-likely to be aware of how appliances are intended to be used and may damage the appliance or themselves.

I have heard that risk of death from an electric shock in the UK is higher than in the US becuase of our higher voltage. However, I haven't been able to find any evidence for this, I'd be interested if anyone does find anything.

On a personal note, I didn't bother with socket covers with any of my three children. When they were very little they were taught it was naughty to touch power points. Later I explained why they can be dnagerous on how to use them safely. I also try to make sure that all the wiring and appliances are kept in fair condition.


answered 11 Feb '10, 20:19

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accept rate: 0%

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Asked: 10 Feb '10, 22:24

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Last updated: 12 Feb '10, 00:22