Though lightning deaths have been trending down over the last several decades; lightning still claims an average of 40-60 lives each year. Yet this statistic lowballs the true scope of the danger. Only around 10% of people struck by lightning are killed, which means approximately 400 to 600 people are struck each year. Of the 90% who survive, most are left with varying levels of disability. Enduring a lightning strike can cause acute trauma to the nervous system, affecting memory, personality or muscle control, causing brain damage, or leaving a person in a comatose state. To avoid this risk, we recommend families take the following safety precautions:
The basics of lightning safety
- Lightning can strike up to 10 miles from a cloud both before or after rain falls from a storm. As a general rule, if you can hear thunder, you’re close enough to the storm to be struck, and it’s time to start heading indoors. It is recommended that you move indoors whenever lightening is within 6 miles, or around 30 seconds between flash and bang.
- If you’re outdoors, seek shelter immediately inside a building or hard-topped vehicle. Trees and open-sided shelters ARE NOT safe, nor are convertibles with non-metal roofs.
- If you’re inside a car, keep the windows rolled up, avoid contact with metal surfaces, and avoid using electronic devices. Do not leave the vehicle until after the storm. It’s not the rubber tires, but the metal encasing, that gives you protection inside a car. If struck, the electricity will travel around the metal exterior and safely into the ground.
- If you’re inside a building with plumbing and wiring, you should be safe. Once inside, it’s best to stay away from electrical appliances, corded telephones and plumbing until the thunderstorm passes. (Cell phones are OK so long as they are used within a safe structure.) If a bolt of lightning strikes a house, it will travel through the frame and continue to the ground, but metal pipes and other wires can channel this electricity. If you’re touching these conduits, you can be electrocuted. Such a danger is rare (all lightning fatalities in 2008 were outside when hit) but it can happen. Having lightning rods on your home greatly diminishes this risk, but won’t completely eliminate it.
Lightning safety: What to do if you’re caught out in the open during a lightening storm
- Stay away from trees! Not only are they magnets for lightning strikes, but falling branches from a strike or from the storm in general pose another hazard.
- Try to find a spot a safe distance away from trees, but within the general vicinity of something taller that could take the strike for you.
- Get low. Crouch down to the ground. Not only does this make you less of a lightning rod, but should you get struck, it leaves less distance for the bolt to travel between you and the ground, which can lessen injury. However, you shouldn’t lie flat, since lightening often inters through the ground rather than overhead.
- Avoid using cell phones, iPods, or other electronic devices which could build a charge around you.
- 5 if you are out in a field and your hair stands on its end or your skin tingles, crouch down immediately, as this is a sign that a strike is immanent.
Lightning safety on the water
- You shouldn’t be anywhere in the water during a thunderstorm. If swimming, get out and take shelter. Water conducts electricity, so kids can be zapped, knocked out or drown even if they aren’t hit directly.
- If you’re in a boat on the water and can’t make it to shore, maneuver your boat so that it’s close to something taller than it. On water, lightning will hit the tallest object. Getting next to an oil rig or supply boat lets them take the hit for you.
- If nothing else is around, make your boat as low as possible: remove any outriggers, drop antennas, and do your best to avoid the storm’s leading edge, where lightning strikes are most likely to occur.
If a person is struck by lightening
People struck by lightening DO NOT retain an electrical charge, so it’s safe to tough them. Check for a pulse and start CPR if necessary, which is reasonably effective on victims of lightening strike.
Information that will keep your family safe from lightening: lightening safety basics, what to do if caught in a lightening storm, & first aid for someone stuck by lightening.