Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Protecting Yourself in the Summer: Lightning Safety

The summer is a great time for travel, the beach and other adventures (athletic or otherwise).  Many of these adventures are likely to be outdoors given the warm sun and the cool breezes that this time of year can bring.  Last week I reminded everyone to play it safe in the sun and to protect yourself from sunburn and skin cancer. (If you missed last week’s post, click here.)This week I’d like to talk about lightning safety.  Lightning-related deaths are consistently in the top 2 of storm-related deaths each year in the United States.  Over the last decade there have been an average of 42 deaths and an estimated 10 times as many injuries in the US annually.  It is very important to get yourself and those with you to safety in the event of a storm.  This blog post will outline some of the key things you should know to protect yourself in the event of lightning.

The recommendations I will be making today will be based on the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Position Statement:  Lightning Safety for Athletics and Recreation (2013).  There are other resources you can access to learn more about lightning safety available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The linked NATA Position Statement consolidates much of the important information you need to know whether you are an individual trying to get yourself to safety or you are enacting an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) at a large sporting venue.


  1. Formalize and implement a comprehensive lightning-safety policy or emergency action plan (EAP).
  2. Designate and locate primary choices for a safe location in the event of a lightning strike.
  3. Designate and locate secondary choices for a safe location in the event of lightning strike.
  4. Seek a safe structure or location at the first sign of lightning or thunder activity.
  5. Postpone or suspend activity if a thunderstorm appears imminent before or during an activity or contest regardless of whether lightning is seen or thunder is heard.
  6.  Suspended activities should only be resumed if 30 minutes have passed since the last sound of thunder or lightning flash.
  7. Avoid being in contact with, or in proximity to the highest point of an open field or on the open water.
  8. Avoid taking showers and using plumbing facilities and land-line telephones.  If a phone must be used in an emergency cell phones are safer.
  9. Assume the lightning safe position if you feel your hair stand on end or your skin tingle.  Do not lie flat on the ground.
  10. Know the appropriate first aid procedures for a lightning strike victim.

The most important thing anyone can do is understand your risk for thunderstorms and lightning strikes.  That means knowing if you’re in an area where thunderstorms are common as well as having a dependable weather report resource available for decision-making.  This map is from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) represents the lightning strike density based on data collected by the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN).  To read the map, the more red the area the greater the lightning strike density, meaning those in Florida and other areas of the Southeast and Midwest are most at risk.

For those of you who are not planning the athletic event it may not be your responsibility to develop a lightning safety specific EAP, but if you are I encourage you to be proactive and have a plan.  For those of you attending tournaments and events, make sure you know what the plan is.  It is especially important to know what the event will be using as primary and secondary safe locations and how long it will take you to get to those locations should a storm move into the area.  There may be times where a storm approaches suddenly and you have little time to get to safety, knowing where you need to go in advance will save you time and worry. 

As soon as you see lightning or hear thunder you should get to a designated safe location and seek shelter.  Previous recommendations stated that once the flash-to-bang reached 30 seconds you should begin to seek shelter.  This recommendation has now become once the flash-to-bang reached 30 seconds you should ALREADY be in a safe location.  The flash to bang time is the number of seconds between the lightning flash and its associated thunder boom.  Five seconds of time is equal to one mile of distance to strike from where you’re standing.  A time of 30 seconds means the lightning is within 6 miles and can potentially strike where you’re standing next (it’s been shown to jump up to 6 miles from strike to strike).  Once it’s clear you need to leave, you need to know where to go.

PRIMARY SAFE LOCATION:  Any substantial building that has plumbing, electrical wiring and telephone service would make an ideal safe location.  It is likely that the lightning current is more likely to follow plumbing, electrical wiring and telephone wiring to the ground, aiding in grounding the structure.  However, given the conductive nature of plumbing and wiring congregating in locker-room shower areas, swimming pools or areas with a large number of electrical appliances should be avoided.

SECONDARY SAFE LOCATION:  The best example of a secondary safe location is an automobile.  The metal (not the rubber in the tires) in the car ground the car and make it a safe alternative for seeking shelter in a storm if something else is not available.  Be sure the windows are rolled up.  A convertible, golf cart, bleachers or a storage shed are not acceptable safe locations.

If you are caught outside and you don’t have an option to seek shelter the most important thing is DO NOT seek shelter underneath a tree or other tall objects in the area.  Lightning is attracted to the tallest objects and highest points in an area and so these should be avoided.  Your goal should be to assume the lightning safe position in the largest, lowest open area you can find (especially if your hair has started to stand up and you feel your skin tingling).  Doing this minimizes your contact with the ground and makes you as small as possible.  DO NOT lie flat on the ground.

The Emergency Action Plan should clearly delineate the decision-making process for postponing or suspending events and activities.  It’s important that decisions about events be made if a storm appears to be imminent based on available data, not once the storm has begun.  Once an event has been suspended it should not be resumed until the lightning and thunder has stopped for at least 30 minutes.  If you’re interested in decision-making for large athletic venues review that section of the position statement, since it’s beyond the scope of this blog post.

Individuals can be injured by the lightning strike itself, as well as by the secondary results of the strike such as fire, falling objects or the strike shockwaves.  If you are in a position to help, the victim should be moved to a safe location, but do not compromise your own safety to help.  Once to safety, it’s likely you will need to begin CPR and rescue breathing.  If an AED is available it should be used as soon as possible.  Remember, victims do not carry an electrical charge after they have been struck, you can safely tough them without being injured yourself.  Additional information about caring for lightning victims and the long-term effects of injury are available in the NATA Position Statement.

As an athletic trainer for the last 15 years I have had plenty of situations where thunderstorms and lightning have impacted athletic events I have covered.  Sometimes these events were postponed and resumed, sometimes they were cancelled.  Reflecting on my personal experiences with lightning safety if I could give parents and athletes any advice on how to handle such situations, it would be to please listen to those in charge and do what they ask.  As appropriate move to the designated safe location and wait for further instructions, even if you don’t see lightning or hear thunder.  They have your best interest in mind (as well as access to weather forecasting and other information you may not).  Also, I know that your first instinct may be to run under the bleachers or the nearest tree to take shelter from the rain, but this actually puts you at further risk for being struck by lightning.  In the end, know the lightning safety plan for where you are and listen to the decision-maker in case of an impending storm and stay safe!

‘‘NO Place Outside Is Safe When Thunderstorms Are In
The Area!’’

‘‘When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!’’

Submitted by Heather L. Clemons, MS, MBA, ATC


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