Electrical power is the lifeblood of so many of the devices we enjoy and rely on every day, from computers to cooking appliances to medical equipment, that it’s easy to forget how hazardous it can sometimes be. Electricity is also what powers our nervous systems, through a delicate balance of interwoven pulses and signals, which is why exposure to electric current can have such devastating and sometimes unpredictable effects on the human body.
Modifying and maintaining electrical systems is a dangerous task, even for qualified electricians, let alone for untrained workers, business owners, or homeowners attempting to troubleshoot vital equipment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2,210 American workers were injured on the job by electricity in 2017, severely enough to miss days of work. A further 136 were killed by these same kinds of injuries.
The risk of injury and death from electric shocks can be drastically reduced with proper training and precautions. However, it’s almost impossible to perform electrical work without depending, sooner or later, on someone else taking proper safety precautions as well. That includes the manufacturers of the basic tools and safety gear necessary to perform the work. A multimeter in particular qualifies as both tool and safety gear, with double the possibilities for injury if it fails or malfunctions.
Using a Multimeter Often Means Trusting Your Life to It
As the name suggests, multimeters are designed for multiple purposes, chiefly measuring voltage, current, and resistance. For people working with electrical systems, these few functions have countless indispensable applications, from testing batteries and fuses to diagnosing burnt out wiring. One of a multimeter’s most important uses, however, is to verify that a circuit about to be worked on has been properly de-energized. In this way, a multimeter is much like a helmet, a smoke detector, or a climbing carabiner, and its importance in preserving lives should be taken just as seriously. Unfortunately, commercially available multimeters often fail to live up to this responsibility.
In 2002, Fluke issued a recall for 40,000 of its multimeters due to delayed voltage readings. When testing high voltage circuits, these meters could take up to 18 seconds to respond, leading users to believe the voltage to be zero. Later, in 2010, Extech issued a similar recall of a batch of multimeters prone to giving inaccurate readings when their battery power ran low. Fluke and Extech are both highly respected electronics companies and were both honest enough to issue their recalls voluntarily — Fluke in particular holds the dubious distinction of having issued two voluntary multimeter recalls in as many years a decade later. However, given the dangerously flawed products that have slipped past the notice of such reputation-conscious companies for long enough to reach the hands of users, there’s no telling how many other companies have allowed flawed multimeters to remain on the market indefinitely.
Most multimeters are manufactured in China or India, sometimes by American companies abiding by American regulations, sometimes not. Prices range from $10 to upwards of $1,000, and quality varies just as much. Higher prices often mean higher voltage ratings and better failsafes, but not always. Many off-brand models make lofty promises about their voltage ratings but never undergo independent certification to validate these claims. To make matters more confusing, cheap imitations of trusted brands are common, and the purchaser of a multimeter will often not be the only person using it. It can be difficult enough to tell how trustworthy a unit is on the shelf, let alone separated from its box and price tag in a communal work environment.
The AIMOmeter MS8217, for example, is built to be nearly identical to a Fluke product on the outside, but a dissection of its insides by one electronics enthusiast reveals that its main fuse isn’t connected to anything. False or delayed readings, like those given by Fluke and Extech’s older recalled models, can lead to users unknowingly touching live wires, potentially leading to serious injury or death. The consequences of using a multimeter without properly installed fuses, on the other hand, can be disastrous on an even larger scale.
A Defective Multimeter Can Do Much Worse than Nothing
The purpose of a multimeter’s fuse is much the same as the purpose of any fuse: to break a circuit if the amperage rises too high, before serious damage can occur. Without an adequate fuse setup, a spike in current can cause arcing, explosion, electrocution, and fire, posing a severe hazard not only to the user but to everyone in the surrounding area.
These kinds of faulty designs are not limited to a few substandard knockoffs like the AIMOmeter. Amprobe, another well-respected brand, issued a recall in 2012 for two of its multimeter models, warning customers that the units might arc or explode at voltages significantly lower than they’d originally been rated for. Then, in 2016, Fluke popped back into the recall advisory stream with a similar issue. Two versions of their ironically named “Intrinsically Safe Multimeter” were prone to developing cracks in the casing near the rear screws, creating an arcing hazard and the possibility of particle explosions in dusty work environments.
Many of these voluntary recalls were issued before any serious injuries were recorded — though not before the public was put at serious risk of injury and death, it should be noted — but that’s not to say that multimeter accidents are limited to the realm of theory. Far from it. According to a survey by the Electrical Safety Authority (ESA), more than one in ten electrical trades workers have had a multimeter fail violently during use. At least 18% of these failures were caused solely by equipment defects, and many more involved simple, predictable user errors, easy for even an experienced professional to make.
That’s a ridiculously high ratio of dangerous failures for any product. It’s even more ridiculous when you consider the safety features that do exist among higher-end models, which lower-end designers choose not to implement. Manufacturers who knowingly skimp on basic safety for the sake of cost-cutting are relying on the tendency of consumers to blame themselves for not spending more money if something goes wrong. While it’s not a bad idea to reach above the bottom-shelf version of a product when your life may depend on it, no company should be profiting off of selling dangerously substandard products in the first place.
The ESA’s survey only included living, practicing electrical workers, and therefore didn’t even include fatal incidents, like the one that claimed the lives of an electrician and a firefighter during an examination of a shopping mall’s malfunctioning electrical system.
Based on an examination by a forensic engineer, the electrician and firefighter had both arrived to check on systems that were producing smoke and experiencing outages. The electrician borrowed a multimeter from the mall’s maintenance department and began using it to try to diagnose a problem with the switchboard. A resulting fireball engulfed the electrician and firefighter, along with a maintenance worker who survived with severe injuries. The subsequent investigation revealed that the multimeter had no safety rating, packaging with the misleading label of “industrial multimeter,” and a fuse that was nowhere near adequate for safe use on industrial electrical systems.
Stay Safe While Using Your Multimeter
The best multimeters are designed to protect users from common errors as well as deliberate misuse, and ideally, they should all be made this way. That said, no number of safety features can completely eliminate the danger of working with electricity, so it’s important to take all possible precautions to minimize your risk.
Completely disconnecting the power to a circuit before connecting or disconnecting a multimeter
Triple-checking that the meter is on the correct setting before taking a reading, including checking voltage/amperage/resistance, ac/dc, polarity, and placement of leads
Always starting from the highest voltage or amperage range and working your way down to more precise readings if necessary
Inspecting the meter for damage before every use
Never using leads with damaged or inadequate insulation, which can allow a fatal current to cross the heart
Using the same hand to place each lead individually whenever possible, instead of two hands to place them simultaneously
Never allowing the leads to touch each other while in contact with points on a circuit
Always unplugging the red lead before the black lead
It’s also advisable to use your own equipment whenever possible and do thorough research before making a purchase. Look for an independent rating certification, not just manufacturer’s claims such as “designed for use on” or “built to withstand” a certain voltage or current.
What to Do After a Multimeter-Related Accident
Multimeter failures can cause injury and death in multiple ways. Arcing can start fires, explosions can cause blunt trauma and shrapnel damage, and other malfunctions can cause severe shocks and electrocution, so first aid may take different forms for different incidents. If a person is stuck in contact with an electrical current and is unable to let go, immediately shut down the power if possible, or pry the victim away from the source with a non-conductive object, such as a dry piece of wood.
Next, call for emergency medical assistance, regardless of the nature of the injury. Do not attempt to move the patient unless there is a fire, electrical arcing and sparking, or another ongoing dangerous condition. In these cases, evacuate the area quickly and carefully. Immediate symptoms to expect after an electrical injury include:
Fractures (caused by seizing or being jolted backward)
Problems with swallowing, breathing, hearing, or vision
Muscle spasms and pain
Numbness or tingling
If the patient has lost consciousness, check his or her airway, breathing, and circulation, and perform CPR if necessary. If the patient is conscious but disoriented or pale, have him or her lie with legs elevated, covered by a warm blanket or coat. If there are visible burns, remove any clothing or jewelry that may stick to them. As long as the conditions are safe and there is no skin loss, cool water can be applied to draw heat from the burn. If there is profuse bleeding from explosion-related trauma, apply pressure around the area but do not attempt to remove any embedded shrapnel.
Unless the multimeter user was only startled by the failure and never actually came in contact with electrical current, do NOT forego medical treatment just because there are no visible injuries and he or she “seems fine.” Even a small amount of electrical current passing through the human body can be dangerous, and the effects are not always immediate. Debilitating, stroke-like symptoms can develop days or weeks after an untreated shock. A lack of visible burns can even indicate that the victim has above-average skin conductivity, allowing the current to do greater internal damage.
Once immediate medical needs are met, document the events that led to the accident. This may include preserving the remains of the multimeter, photographing the scene, and writing down details while they’re fresh in your mind. Finally, get in touch with qualified legal counsel, like the electrical injury lawyers at the Stoddard Firm. We’re always available at 678-RESULT and through our online chat function to provide a free consultation on your next steps. We have brought multiple successful cases against multimeter manufacturers in the past, so we have both the experience and expert witness relationships to put your case in the best possible light.
Tell us about your concern and request a free, no obligation, confidential legal consultation.
Fire extinguishers perform a near-invisible but vital function in most people’s lives. We use them rarely, if at all, but we’re always counting on them to be there for us if we ever need them. That’s what they’re for. When a fire breaks out, a working fire extinguisher can make the difference between a harmless scare and death, serious injury, or millions of dollars in property damage.