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The reason I have always heard to explain the reduction of electric shock when we wear insulating footwear goes as follows:

When electricity passes from our body to the ground, an electric circuit is complete. This results in flow of charges resulting in an electric shock. However, an insulator makes this circuit open by not allowing the current to pass through.

But when charges enter our body, even though they do not flow and go inside the earth, they are still present in our body, right? If there's an excess of electrons, we should feel the additional electrons' presence regardless of whether those electrons flow through our body or not.

What am I getting wrong?

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Typically this is explained by the saying, "current kills."

It's not the charge (or potential above ground) that a body attains that hurts biological systems, it's the current that flows through them and either 1) heats them or 2) disrupts important electrical signals in the body.

Heating damage occurs and can "cook" (cause 1st, 2nd, or 3rd degree burns internally or externally) portions of the body where the current flows.

Electrical disruption is the more deadly of the two, commonly. The heart depends on regular electrical pulses from the sinoatrial node to contract not just rhythmically, but for the entire heart to contract at the same time. If an electrical current is induced across the heart at the wrong time, or across a weak heart it may lead to atrial fibrillation. This is the most common abnormal heartbeat pattern the heart ends up following when presented with such an electrical interruption, and it's extraordinarily inefficient, leading to low blood oxygen. AED (automatic external defibrillators) are designed to detect this abnormal beat, then apply a specific electrical current and waveform to the heart to give it a good chance of regaining normal beating. With very high voltages, we can discuss the muscle contraction that takes place, and the possibility that this would cause the person some damage depending on their location (ie, throwing themselves backward into a concrete wall due to a sudden jolt), but this wouldn't be the case for the situation at hand.

While heating does occur any time there's any current flow (except in a superconductor, theoretically), it takes a lot of current to cook organic materials.

While the heart can react to electrical currents, it's not very sensitive.

Thus it's the current that flows through the body, or the heart in the case of fibrillation, that is important.

The charge required to bring a human body up to the potential of the circuit they are touching is very, very small. Effectively the human and ground becomes a capacitor with an insulator between them - a small one on the feet, and the air as insulator elsewhere. The capacitance would be very small as the insulator is neither thin nor large (the closer the two conducting surfaces, and the larger the surfaces, the greater the capacitance).

So it would only take a very small amount of current to charge up the body, and that current isn't significant enough to cause either heating or electrical signal disruption.

Further, from the point of contact, the charge would rapidly radiate throughout the relatively conductive body, meaning that the area of greatest current is the contact point, but after that no other spot on the body receives any significant amount of current. Even if you were able to increase the capacitance significantly, and you chose a very, very high voltage, thus forcing many more electrons into the body, the only part that would become damaged would be the heating damage at the point of contact with the conductor providing the charge. You might get a small electrical burn there.

So the situation you describe could only generate a very, very small current to bring the body up to a specific voltage potential, and thus would be unlikely to produce any damage.

That being said, don't do it anyway. Take all reasonable precautions.

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  • $\begingroup$ Referring to Ohm's law and putting in some numbers would really add some perspective to this answer. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Mar 29 '15 at 7:27
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If you have an excess of electron in your body, your hair might stand on end and you might feel a bit negative (I couldn't help that pun), and you should probably avoid touching people or metal object if you don't want a static shock, but other than that, it's mostly harmless. The real danger comes from flowing electrons. Because the body basically runs on electric impulses with very small currents and voltages, even a tiny amount of current flowing through us could do drastic harm. When you get a lot of electrons flowing through you, they could cause all sorts of mayhem. From burning you to stopping your heart.

Normally, in bare feet for instance, when you touch some highly charged object, your body provides a conduit for that charge to flow through you and into the ground, the place that charges tend to want to go. This is bad because it's flowing electrons. But when you wear insulating footwear, you block the charge's ability to go to the ground. Instead, all that happens is the charge between you and the object balances. You gain or lose some electrons. Sure, there's electrons flowing through your finger or your hand, but nothing important like your heart or major nerves. Worst case is you get a slight burn where you got the static shock. Then the charge stays in you until it finds a way to jump to something less charged. Keep a small metal thing in your pocket and use it to touch anything metal when this happens. That prevents you from getting a shock. But ultimately, the electrons aren't flowing through your body. They just sit there. No flowing electrons, no major problem.

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  • $\begingroup$ See youtube.com/watch?v=XIxwYOMCCmE for a video of someone with long hair using a Van de Graaff generator to generate a large electrostatic charge. I've seen physics demos like this in person. Touching something afterwards will produce an unpleasant shock, but it's so short that it's just funny (for everyone else), not dangerous. (Probably they discharge volunteers gradually these days, to avoid frying anyone's phone. IDK if it's possible for getting a big electrostatic shock to set off heart problems in a kid with a pre-existing but undiscovered defect or anything like that.) $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Mar 25 '15 at 9:34
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The whole electrical power grid is connected to ground. I don't know the details of other regions, but if you are in North America, the two current carrying conductors in a residential electrical outlet are called "hot" and "neutral". The "neutral" conductor is connected to the Earth at many places.

If your bare feet touch wet Earth, and your hand touches the "hot" wire, it's almost the same as if your feet were connected directly to the neutral wire.

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  • $\begingroup$ If neutral is grounded as you say, why is there a separate grounding cable in the outlets? $\endgroup$ – n0rd Mar 24 '15 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ @n0rd I am not an electrician, and I don't know the reason, but I think it may have something to do with the fact that the current in the safety ground wire is always supposed to be zero. The magnitude of the current in the neutral wire should be the same as in the hot wire, and because the wiring has non-zero resistance, the voltage on the neutral wire at the appliance end will be different from ground potential when the appliance is drawing current. Or maybe it's just for redunancy. If the neutral wire is disconnected, the appliance chassis still will be grounded. $\endgroup$ – Solomon Slow Mar 24 '15 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ Why power lines have neutral cable, too, if consumer could just stick it to the ground? That would save power companies half of the cable they have to pull to consumer. $\endgroup$ – n0rd Mar 24 '15 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ Here in North America it would save 1/3 or 1/4. Residences and small office buildings get two hots (phased $180^{\circ}$ apart) and one neutral. Bigger buildings get three hots (phased $120^{\circ}$ apart) and one neutral. Problem is, when you want to carry tens or hundreds of Amperes from point A to point B, the Earth is not a reliable conductor. The resistance is variable and almost certainly higher than heavy aluminum wire, and it's dangerous too since there could be significant voltage drop between different points on the surface of the ground. $\endgroup$ – Solomon Slow Mar 24 '15 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ So neutral cable a) is absolutely required and b) need not to be grounded, right? $\endgroup$ – n0rd Mar 24 '15 at 21:39
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Take a capacitor and put it across a battery. There will be a transient current as the electrons go towards the anode . This happens very fast and the current is small. If you short the capacitor with a wire, the battery will empty all its charge on the short, which, depending on the battery can really be damaging.

Your body accumulates some charge which the insulating layer of the shoe does not allow a short to the ground to happen, as with a capacitor.

If one is working around charges it is wise to have non-conductive shoes in case of accidents. The power charging up the body will be nothing compared to the power if the current found a short to the ground.

p.s. Have you seen birds sitting on high voltage lines? They probably feel a small prick when they charge upbut no current goes through them, unless their wing touches a neutral. Fact: my son when doing his army duty close to a forest helped put out a fire started by a large crow who when flying off from the high voltage shorted with its wings to the neutral , caught fire and fell on the forest floor starting the fire.

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  • $\begingroup$ Re birds on high-voltage wires: Power lines carry AC. The birds don't just "charge up" when they land: They'll feel a continuous AC current. Birds may feel comfortable on low-to-medium voltage wires, but you won't see them sitting on the really high voltage transmission lines. The electric field is too strong. youtube.com/watch?v=9tzga6qAaBA The men in the video are wearing wire-mesh suits. Without the suits (and especially without the hoods) they would not be able to get anywhere near those wires. $\endgroup$ – Solomon Slow Mar 24 '15 at 17:00
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If you are not in a complete electrical circuit, any electric shock caused by touching a charged object or wire is brief. These "static shocks" are slightly painful, but they are (rarely) dangerous or fatal. I'm sure you've experienced a minor static shock.

By wearing insulating footwear, you break a complete circuit and forbid a flow of electricity from passing through your body. These electric shocks are very dangerous.

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  • $\begingroup$ So, if I interpreted you correctly, you mean to say that current is much more dangerous than static electricity, yes? $\endgroup$ – Always Learning Forever Mar 24 '15 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ hmm is something wrong here? $\endgroup$ – innisfree Mar 24 '15 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ @akshat yes, exactly $\endgroup$ – innisfree Mar 24 '15 at 16:31

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