Static electricity: what is it and what are its health risks?

That slight shock you feel when you touch an object is called static electricity. Read on and learn how it is produced, what risks it entails and how to avoid them.

Last update: 04 October, 2021

The phenomenon of static electricity can manifest itself almost anywhere and at any time. It is produced when charges have accumulated on one object and dissipate to another that has less charge, with which it comes into contact.

In a factory, at the office, at home, when you shake someone’s hand, touch a doorknob, touch a surface… a spark suddenly jumps out, generating a start in people. Static electricity is not always so harmless.

Directly, the discharge itself is not dangerous, but may be associated with circumstances that are. An explosion or fire, when there are flammable materials or a work accident due to sudden movement.

What is static electricity?

Static is a form of electricity. It is produced by the accumulation of energy in a certain material. And it is that, whether conductive or not, bodies have the ability to absorb and retain a stationary electric potential.

In static electricity, electrons travel through the body, reaching the edge of it. In contrast, when electrons flow from one end to the other in a body, electricity is dynamic. This is what we know as current.

However, static electricity manifests itself in the form of discharges, when an object that has more accumulated energy comes into contact with another with less charge. And then there is the spark, often visible. This discharge is minimal and does not exceed 0.005 amps.

The human body is a good conductor of electricity and also an accumulator. As curious as it may sound, it can store a large amount of energy. If it does not reach 4000 volts, you will not experience the sparks.

The accumulation depends on several factors:

  • The greater the movement, the greater the load.
  • Certain physical characteristics of the person (for example, excessive sweating or hyperhidrosis).
  • Contact with bodies susceptible to being charged.
  • Closeness to electric fields generated by charged bodies.
  • Humidity in the environment.
  • Clothing, since synthetic fibers favor the accumulation of loads.
  • Type of floor, since static is a common problem with parquet.
The humidity in the environment favors the presence of static electricity.

How Static Electricity Is Produced

It is considered that all elements generate static electricity, whatever its state: solid, liquid or gaseous. In fact, the rays are due to the friction of water vapor particles in clouds, for example.

Normally, in bodies there is a similar charge between electrons (negative) and protons (positive). This means that the common thing is that the neutral state is maintained, which is electrically stable.

Now static electricity occurs when two bodies exchange their charges. That is, an electron transfer disequilibrium occurs.

This can happen in several ways:

  • By friction or friction between materials of different composition or nature. One gives up and the other gains electrons. This is observed in the experiment we did at school, with the comb brushing against the hair.
  • Contact charge: When two objects approach or maintain contact with each other, one can be charged positively or negatively. In other words, electrons move from one body to the other.

Among the materials with the greatest capacity to produce frictional static are glass, nylon and polyester, polyurethane, acrylics, Teflon and any object made with these materials.

The amount of static electricity produced by contact is much less than that generated by friction. However, the phenomenon can manifest itself equally.

Health Risks of Static Electricity

Static electricity discharges are low in terms of amperage, so they are not hazardous to health for most people. At least not directly.

In many cases, we will not go beyond feeling a slight discomfort similar to a cramp, a small spasm or a slight fright. But, in some people certain symptoms may appear that suggest the existence of an allergy to electricity.

On the other hand, in patients with pacemakers and other implantable devices, Electric shock can cause transient interference. Although there is no news of damage to the equipment.

Additionally, static electricity has been linked to a condition known as semicircular lipoatrophy. In this disorder, the adipose tissue is affected, presenting sinking in the anterior and lateral aspect of the thighs. However, there is not enough evidence in this regard.

Occupational hazards

In the industrial field There are various activities that can generate or accumulate amounts of electrical charge. For example, the circulation of a fluid at high speed through a pipeline, the emptying of grains in a silo, painting with a high pressure atomizer.

In this sense, different risk situations associated with static electricity are observed in work environments. To begin with, if the phenomenon occurs very frequently, it can generate a feeling of discomfort that leads to job dissatisfaction.

On the other hand, in certain tasks, an electric shock carries risks. For example, if the person is doing work at height, it may mean inattention or making a sudden movement that increases the chances of a fall.

Apart from this, in environments with risk of fire or explosion, where there are gases or flammable substances (butane, propane, gasoline, alcohol), as well as detonating materials (gunpowder, dynamite), an electrical spark can result in a fatal accident.

Static electricity can indirectly lead to an accident in working at heights.

Precautionary measures

The first and most important measure should be eliminate the possibility of static electricity being generated. To this end, controlling the variables that contribute to the recombination of loads is essential in work settings.

This depends on several factors:

  • Materials conductivity: an insulator or a bad conductor does not contribute to the circulation of accumulated charges. Rather, dissipative materials should be preferred.
  • Workers clothing: It must be made with antistatic fabrics, avoiding synthetics.
  • Dehumidifiers: In environments with high relative humidity, water molecules settle on materials, increasing their conductivity.
  • Use of antistatic conductive floors.
  • Use air ionization equipment in workspaces where needed.
  • Ground electrical devices in contact with the floor.

Be careful with static electricity in its proper measure

In an office or at home, touching objects that cause electric shock is often a cause for complaint or discomfort. However, this problem can go beyond a simple annoyance, since movements that trigger domestic or work accidents can be caused.

In a factory or workshop, where there are dangerous substances (toxic, flammable or explosive), the risks may be greater. For this reason, the corresponding prevention and protection measures for workers must be taken, in accordance with the provisions of the law.

It is convenient to start from an analysis and evaluation of the potential risks. Then, they will seek to establish the actions and mechanisms necessary to control and reduce the factors that generate the discharges.

Finally, do not forget the human factor. Along with all these measures, training and information must be provided to workers on occupational health and safety standards.

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