I have a near miss to report at the safety meeting.

Mandi came to me this morning to tell me that something bad happened with the clothes dryer. She was pulling the drying rack out from between the machine and the wall and bumped the plug, which then decided to fall off the wall, pop, and turn off the dryer.

When I came in to look, it was pretty obvious what had happened: the plastic outlet box had been improperly mounted to the wall without anchors and had wiggled loose over time as the drying machine shook around. When Mandi bumped it, the screws fell completely out of the wall, touched the outlet contacts, and created a short circuit.

Ironically and frighteningly, the circuit breaker didn’t trip. This scared me, so I ended up shutting power off to the entire apartment before I got in there and investigated (no label indicating which breaker this was on). My fears were only confirmed and worsened once I opened up the outlet box. The wire feeding the outlet burnt through and had fallen out of the lug meant to hold it securely; it was dangling inside the box.

Even worse, I discovered that there was no grounding connection in the box. A strong ground connection is incredibly important for something like a clothes dryer because it draws so much power and is built inside a metal box. If that wire had decided to fall on the ground contact inside the outlet box when it fell out, the dryer would have been energized and could have injured Mandi or myself if we had touched it. The ground is there to take this shock hazard upon itself in order to protect life.

Sure we weren’t hurt and sure the threats came with ifs, but that’s the whole point of safety, to minimize the risk and operate in a mature manner. Out of the many safety mechanisms in place, three were found wanting in our apartment this morning:

  • The outlet wasn’t grounded, introducing a shock hazard when touching the dryer. I’m not sure how accessible a ground connection might be, but it’s worth the human safety element to install it properly.
  • The wiring wasn’t properly secured in the outlet. This style is similar to the quicker push-in style outlets that I tell everyone to avoid like the plague. With a single straight entry and a screw holding it tight, it’s prone to loosen up with normal vibration. Much better is to use a connector that lets you wrap the wire around a screw to provide a mechanical backup connection if the screw loosens. I’m guessing that it wasn’t properly tightened when it was originally installed either.
  • The outlet wasn’t secured to the wall, making it susceptible to bumps. The type of walls here require that one use anchors when attaching because the material is even flakier than drywall. The outlet was closer to balancing on the wall than hanging, ready to fall with a small disturbance. It needs to be solid so that tugs on the wire and other hits don’t interfere.

In the end I cut off the burnt pieces of wire and reinstalled them making sure to properly tighten the screw terminals. I couldn’t reinstall the box on the wall (and I don’t want to without the right anchors) because the holes for the screws were fully bored-out. So now it’s sitting down low where it’s at least out of the way and not exposing live wires.

Never take shortcuts with electricity!

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