Static Electricity: What Is It and What Are the Health Risks?

That slight discharge you feel when you touch an object is called static electricity. Read on to learn how it is produced, what the risks are and how to avoid them.
Static Electricity: What Is It and What Are the Health Risks?
Leidy Mora Molina

Reviewed and approved by the nurse Leidy Mora Molina.

Last update: 06 March, 2023

The phenomenon of static electricity can occur almost anywhere and at any time. It occurs when charges have accumulated on an object and travel to a less-charged object with which it comes into contact.

In a factory, in the office, at home, when shaking someone’s hand, touching a doorknob, or brushing against a surface… a spark suddenly jumps out, causing people to be startled. While common, static electricity isn’t always so harmless.

Directly, the discharge itself is not dangerous, but it can lead to circumstances that are. This may include an explosion or fire, when flammable materials are present, or a workplace accident due to sudden movement.

What is static electricity?

Static electricity is a form of electricity. It’s produced by the accumulation of energy in a given material. Whether they are conductors or not, bodies have the capacity to absorb and retain a stationary electrical potential.

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

Static electricity manifests itself in the form of discharges when an object that has more accumulated energy comes into contact with another object of a lesser charge. Then a spark is produced. This discharge is minimal and does not exceed 0.005 amperes.

The human body is a good conductor of electricity and also an accumulator. Oddly enough, it can store a large amount of energy. If it doesn’t reach 4000 volts, however, you won’t experience the sparks.

Accumulation depends on several factors:

  • The greater the movement, the greater the charge.
  • Certain physical characteristics of the person (e.g. excessive sweating or hyperhidrosis).
  • Contact with bodies susceptible to charge.
  • Proximity to electric fields generated by charged bodies.
  • The humidity in the environment.
  • Clothing, since synthetic fibers favor the accumulation of charges.
  • The type of floor, since static electricity is a common problem on parquet floors.
Humedad en el ambiente favorece la electricidad estática.
Ambient humidity favors static electricity.

How static electricity is produced

It’s known that all elements generate static electricity, whatever their state (solid, liquid, or gaseous). In fact, lightning is 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 neutral state, which is electrically stable, is usually maintained.

Static electricity, however, occurs when two bodies exchange charges. That is, an imbalance takes place due to the transfer of electrons.

This can occur in several ways:

  • Due to friction or friction between materials of different composition or nature. One gives up and the other gains electrons. This can be observed when you run a comb over your hair.
  • A charge due to contact: When two objects approach or maintain contact with each other, one can become positively or negatively charged. In other words, electrons move from one body to the other.

Among the materials most capable of producing static by friction are glass, nylon and polyester, polyurethane, acrylics, Teflon, and any object made from 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.

The health risks of static electricity

Static electricity discharges are low in terms of amperage, so they’re not dangerous for most people. At least not directly.

In many cases, we won’tt feel anything more than a slight discomfort similar to a cramp, a small spasm, or a slight scare. However, in some people, certain symptoms can manifest themselves that can lead to a sort of allergy to electricity.

On the other hand, in patients with pacemakers and other implantable devices, electrical discharges can produce transitory interferences. However, there have been no reports of damage to the equipment.

In addition, static electricity has been linked to a condition known as semicircular lipoatrophy. This disorder affects adipose tissue, presenting with sagging in the anterior and lateral aspects of the thighs. However, there’s not enough evidence on this subject.

Occupational hazards

In the workplace, there are several 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, or painting with a high-pressure atomizer.

In this respect, different risk situations of static electricity are observable 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 entails risks. For example, if the person is working at certain height, it can mean inattention or a sudden movement that increases the possibility of a fall.

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

Riesgo de electricidad estática en la limpieza de un edificio.
Static electricity can indirectly lead to an accident when people are working at a height.

Preventive measures

The first and most important measure should be to eliminate the possibility of generating static electricity. To this end, controlling the variables that contribute to the recombination of charges is paramount in work environments.

This depends on several factors:

  • The conductivity of the materials: An insulator or poor conductor doesn’t contribute to the circulation of accumulated charges. Rather, dissipative materials are better.
  • Proper worker’s clothing: Always wear antistatic fabrics and avoid synthetic ones.
  • Dehumidifiers: In environments with high relative humidity, water molecules permeate materials, increasing their conductivity.
  • The use of antistatic conductive flooring.
  • The use of air ionization equipment in workspaces where necessary.
  • Electrical devices should be grounded and in contact with the floor.

Be careful with static electricity

In an office or at home, touching objects that produce electrical discharges is often a cause for complaint or discomfort. However, this problem can go beyond a simple nuisance, as it can cause movements that can trigger domestic or work-related accidents.

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

It’s advisable to start with an analysis and evaluation of the potential risks. Then, the necessary actions and mechanisms should be performed to seek to control and reduce the factors that generate discharges.

Finally, let’s not forget the human factor. In addition to all these measures, workers must be knowledgeable about occupational health and safety standards.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.