Lightning: Outdoor Safety


Have Fun, but Be Safe

Most lightning deaths and injuries in the United States occur during the summer months and during the afternoon hours when both lightning and outdoor activities reach a peak. During the summer, people take advantage of the warm weather to enjoy a multitude of recreational activities. To be safe, those who are boating, swimming, fishing, bicycling, golfing, jogging, walking, hiking, camping, working, or just outside in their back yards need to take the appropriate actions in a timely manner when thunderstorms approach.

Being outdoors when thunderstorms are nearby is risky. There is simply no safe place outside any time a thunderstorm is nearby.

From 2006 through 2013, 261 people were struck and killed by lightning in the United States. Almost two thirds of the deaths occurred to people who had been enjoying outdoor leisure activities. Water-related activities contributed to 37% of leisure-related fatalities. Water-related activities include fishing, boating, swimming, or just relaxing at a beach or lake.

There were quite a few people killed around their home, business, or neighborhood. Most of these victims were only steps from safety. For many of the lightning victims, safe shelters were available; however, the victims simply did not act soon enough to get to safety before they were struck.

While summer is a good time to complete outside work, it is very important to work in a safe environment. Between 2006 and 2013, 38 people were struck and killed by lightning in the US while at work. About two thirds of those were farmers, ranchers, roofers, lawn care or construction workers. Many work activities such as these require extra time to shut down, so it is important to monitor weather conditions so workers can end their activities and get to a safe place.

To minimize your threat of being struck by lightning while outdoors, it is important to know when the lightning threat begins to increase significantly and when the threat is reduced to minimal levels.

In general, the threat begins well before people think it begins, and ends well after people think it ends. Unfortunately, it's this lack of understanding that accounts for many lightning casualties.

No one can completely eliminate the risk of being struck by lightning. But by using some basic rules, you can greatly reduce your risk of becoming a lightning casualty.

  1. Plan ahead. If thunderstorms are forecast, consider canceling or postponing outdoor activities so that you avoid a potentially dangerous situation. (A portable NOAA Weather Radio is a great outoor companion.)
  2. Monitor the weather conditions. Watch the sky for any signs of a developing or approaching storm, particularly if you need a long time to get to a safe place.
  3. If the sky looks threatening or you hear thunder, immediately seek safety inside a substantial building. If a substantial building is not available, take shelter in a hard-topped metal vehicle. Remain there for at least 30 minutes after the last flash of lightning is seen or the last thunder is heard. Some lightning victims have made the mistake of returning outdoors before the threat is over.
  4. If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, there are things you can to to decrease your risk of being struck. But to substantially lower the risk to being struck, you must get inside. If you are outside:
    • Avoid tall objects such as tall trees, poles, and elevated hills,
    • Avoid things that conduct electricity such as metal bleachers or wire fences,
    • Try to get to a safe place as fast as you can,
    • Don't lie on the ground,
    • Avoid objects that conduct electricity.

Organized outdoor activities

Since 2006, sport activities (golf, soccer, running, baseball, football, etc.) contributed to 29 lightning deaths in the Unites States. In many cases, those involved in the activities failed to realize the developing danger.

Make sure in advance that the officials in charge of activities you are involved in have and follow a specific lightning safety plan. Don't be afraid to ask.

For stadiums and larger venues, The National Weather Service has toolkits which provide templates to help design a safety plan. Those tool kits can be found here.

Coaches, umpires, referees, or camp counselors should stop activities early, so that there is sufficient amount of time for the participants and spectators to get to a safe place before the lightning threat becomes significant.

If substantial buildings are not available for shelter, cars and buses may provide the best protection. But be sure the windows are closed and that the occupants avoid contact with any metal in the vehicle.

Don't forget your outside pets

Dog houses are not safe. Dogs which are chained to metal chains or wire runners are particularly vulnerable to a nearby lightning strike.

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