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I'm particularly curious if the yoke on typical outlets (e.g. NEMA 5-15) are safe to touch when the outlet is energized.

My understanding is the only way the yoke would be energized is if there is a short circuit somewhere (hot wire touching the yoke, or touching another conductor which touches the yoke) and the outlet is not properly grounded.

So in general, what parts of an outlet are safe to touch when it is live? Only the plastic? Plastic parts and the yoke?

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  • By "yoke" you mean the metal part that holds the outlet into the electrical box?
    – JPhi1618
    Jan 17, 2018 at 18:26
  • @JPhi1618 yes, you got it in your answer
    – cr0
    Jan 17, 2018 at 18:32
  • Don't touch any of the metal components unless you are sure they are de-energized! JPhis answer assumes correctly grounded and wired, ArchonOSX has the most dangerous answer in that he does not mention your standing on something is a point of contact and it is possible you could complete a circuit via your shoes touching the floor!!! If you are on an insulated matt, or your shoes are properly insulated a single point can protect you - the one hand rule is used because of this principle. Again it depends on if you have only ONE point of contact.
    – Ken
    Jan 18, 2018 at 6:33

2 Answers 2

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The safe parts to touch are the plastic, of course, and the metal frame that holds the outlet into the electrical box (the yoke). Of course, this is in a correctly wired installation where the ground wire is connected and runs all the way back to a properly terminated ground point. The grounding would prevent you from being shocked if there was an internal fault in the outlet.

If you suspect something is wrong with the wiring or there is no grounding present, you really shouldn't touch any metal without testing it for voltage or turning off the circuit at the breaker.

Also, this may be obvious to you, but both sides of the outlet where the screws are will be energized - even the screws that are not directly connected to a wire. Never stick your fingers or a screwdriver into the box when the power is on - it's just too easy to touch the sides of an outlet or light switch.

Addition: this isn't very common in newer residential construction, but if there are metal boxes in the wall, some outlets are grounded to the metal box, and the metal box is grounded to the rest of the system. So, if you see an outlet in a metal box with no ground wire, it could still be grounded via the box. Of course, the box may not be grounded at all, so don't assume anything.

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    the yoke is not safe to touch. You would need to assume the yoke is properly grounded. Plastic parts ok , plastic box ok, metal box never - you have to assume too much. I deal with those things this way - if it is metal don't touch it unless you have verified for a fact that there is no live potential on that metal.Better to be safe.
    – Ken
    Jan 18, 2018 at 6:24
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If you don't touch anything else you can touch any part of it.

In order to be shocked or electrocuted you must have a complete circuit.

If I touch an energized conductor with one finger but the rest of my body is insulated or isolated then I will not be shocked because there is no complete circuit.

That said, the energized ungrounded conductor (hot wire) will shock you if you also touch the either the intentionally grounded conductor (neutral) or the equipment ground conductor (ground wire). The equipment ground should be connected to the receptacle yoke so touching that would also complete the circuit. Additionally, touching any metal piping system in the building or other metal parts of a building can also get you shocked.

The safest course of action is to de-energize the circuit, lock it out, tag it out, and then work on it.

Stay safe!

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  • Thanks for the answer, makes sense. De-energizing and testing circuits before working on them is a key safety procedure I'm familiar with, but what do you mean by 'lock it out, tag it out'?
    – cr0
    Jan 17, 2018 at 18:43
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    Lock-out, tag-out (LOTO) is a safety practice where an actual lock is placed on the shutoff switch, preventing anyone from re-energizing the device without first removing the lock. A tag is placed hanging from the lock indicating who is working on the device. When you are done working, you remove your tag; you only remove the lock when there are no more tags on it. Alternatively, each worker has his/her own lock, and the switch has enough space to hold several locks, so you only ever remove the lock that you installed.
    – mmathis
    Jan 17, 2018 at 18:56
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    This is correct in that you aren't likely to be electrocuted if you touch something live with one hand. Current would need to pass your heart via your other hand or a foot that completed a circuit. But if that hand touches two live areas and completes a circuit it will still be locally painful. If you're going to work without cutting the power, it's a good idea to wear gloves. They can be thin latex gloves or thin cotton gloves. If you can't work with gloves on, wear one on one hand.
    – fixer1234
    Jan 18, 2018 at 5:09
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    One problem with this answer is you are already touching something else - the FLOOR you are standing on! This is terrible - you should make sure to mention this - ever have safety shoes on and get a one handed invite..I have fortunately just a quick touch of the hot wire at 120VAC. Please edit your answer ..to make the appropriate safety concerns noted.
    – Ken
    Jan 18, 2018 at 6:27
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    @Ken as I pointed out "the rest of my body is insulated or isolated" This includes feet.
    – ArchonOSX
    Jan 18, 2018 at 7:57

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