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Severe Weather Planning and Response: Lightning

Thunder and lightning storms are such common weather conditions during the summer months that people often ignore the risks. But according to the National Weather Service, lighting is nothing to fool around with. Lightning is deadly, unpredictable, and tends to electrocute people who stand on ladders, play golf and walk across open areas in the middle of a thunderstorm.

It kills over 50 people in the United States every year, and starts countless wildfires, which often threaten lives and property. Lightning also injures many people and causes power outages and other damage.

The National Weather Service says that there are approximately 25 million lightning flashes around the nation annually. There can be hundreds of flashes in just one severe storm.

Although statistically the risk of being struck by lighting is low, it should not to be discounted. Protect your employees by taking a little time soon in a safety meeting or training session to stress the danger of lighting.

Three Simple Precautions

These three simple precautions can greatly reduce the risk of being struck by lightning, according to the National Weather Service.

1. Keep an eye on the sky. Thunderstorms develop as a result of the sun heating the air. As the air gets warmer, it rises and big puffy clouds (cumulus) form. If the air continues to get hotter, cumulus clouds grow upward. If you see a towering cloud in the sky, you might be looking at a developing thunderstorm that can deliver lightning strikes.

2. If you’re outside, seek shelter. If you’re outdoors and you see the sky darkening and hear the rumble of thunder, it’s time to seek shelter in a building or vehicle. The National Weather Service says that lightning can strike from as far away as 10 miles from where it’s raining. This is about the distance you can hear thunder. So if you hear thunder, you’re at risk of being struck by lighting. 

3. If you’re indoors, stay in and take precautions. Even inside, you’re not entirely safe from lightning. The National Weather Service says to stay off landline (wired handset) phones, computers, and other electrical equipment. Also stay away from tubs, showers, and other plumbing. As the storm subsides, wait 30 minutes after the last thunder clap before heading outside.

Dispelling the Myths

As was discussed in yesterday’s article about tornadoes, there are some myths about lightning that need to be unlearned before one can properly prepare for severe thunderstorms and lightning.

One myth about lightning is that the rubber tires on a car will insulate it, thereby causing lightning to not strike a vehicle. Unfortunately, this is NOT true.  If you must seek shelter inside a vehicle, keep in mind that the steel frame of a hard-topped vehicle will increase protection if you are not touching metal. Remember, convertibles, motorcycles, bicycles, open-shelled outdoor recreational vehicles and cars with fiberglass shells offer no protection from lightning. When lightning strikes a vehicle, it goes through the metal frame into the ground. Don’t lean on doors during a thunderstorm. If lightning does strike your car, you may be injured but you are much safer inside a vehicle than outside.

More myth and fact, compliments of the NWS:

Myth: Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
Fact: Lightning often strikes the same place repeatedly, especially if it’s a tall, pointy, isolated object. The Empire State Building is hit nearly 100 times a year. (The show MythBusters tested this myth a while back. Watch the video here.)

Myth: If it’s not raining or there aren’t clouds overhead, you’re safe from lightning.
Fact: Lightning often strikes more than three miles from the center of the thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud. “Bolts from the blue” can strike 10-15 miles from the thunderstorm.

Myth: A lightning victim is electrified. If you touch them, you’ll be electrocuted.
Fact: The human body does not store electricity. It is perfectly safe to touch a lightning victim to give them first aid. This is the most chilling of lightning Myths. Imagine if someone died because people were afraid to give CPR!

Myth: If outside in a thunderstorm, you should seek shelter under a tree to stay dry.
Fact: Being underneath a tree is the second leading cause of lightning casualties. Better to get wet than fried!

Myth: If you are in a house, you are 100% safe from lightning.
Fact: A house is a safe place to be during a thunderstorm as long as you avoid anything that conducts electricity. This means staying off corded phones, electrical appliances, wires, TV cables, computers, plumbing, metal doors and windows. Windows are hazardous for two reasons: wind generated during a thunderstorm can blow objects into the window, breaking it and causing glass to shatter and second, in older homes, in rare instances, lightning can come in cracks in the sides of windows.

Myth: If thunderstorms threaten while you are outside playing a game, it is okay to finish it before seeking shelter.
Fact: Many lightning casualties occur because people do not seek shelter soon enough. No game is worth death or life-long injuries. Seek proper shelter immediately if you hear thunder. Adults are responsible for the safety of children.

Myth: Structures with metal, or metal on the body (jewelry, cell phones,Mp3 players, watches, etc), attract lightning.
Fact: Height, pointy shape, and isolation are the dominant factors controlling where a lightning bolt will strike. The presence of metal makes absolutely no difference on where lightning strikes. Mountains are made of stone but get struck by lightning many times a year. When lightning threatens, take proper protective action immediately by seeking a safe shelter and don’t waste time removing metal. While metal does not attract lightning, it does conduct it so stay away from metal fences, railing, bleachers, etc.

Myth: If trapped outside and lightning is about to strike, I should lie flat on the ground.
Fact: Lying flat increases your chance of being affected by potentially deadly ground current. If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, you keep moving toward a safe shelter.

Myth: Lightning only strikes the tallest objects.
Fact: Of all the lightning myths out there, this is the one that is the most widely believed. The truth is that lightning is strangely indiscriminate. There are so many stories of “bizarre lightning strikes” that it’s probably fair to say they’re not bizarre at all. For example: In 1973, a man was out driving in his car when a lightning bolt didn’t strike any of the power lines all around him. Instead, the bolt struck him in the head! Not only did it set the man’s hair on fire, but it flung him many feet out of his speeding car. In short: lightning can find you anywhere. Lightning hits the ground instead of trees, cars instead of nearby telephone poles, and parking lots instead of buildings.

Myth: iPods and Walkmen attract lightning bolts.
Fact: Well, if you believe statistics.. this is actually true. It’s happened a number of times. In 2007, a Canadian jogger was struck while listening to religious music during a thunderstorm. OK, he was standing under a tree at the time, but there is reason to believe the ear buds he was wearing contributed to the situation- based on the injuries he received (burns from his chest- where he was wearing his iPod- to his ears, following the path of the device’s earphone cable.

Myth: Heat lightning isn’t really lightning.
Fact:  This is false. Most have seen heat lightning at one time or another, be it camping or on the lake or in your backyard. The truth is that heat lightning is lightning. It’s just as dangerous, but probably not to you. It’s just being produced by a thunderstorm too distant to adequately see or hear. You usually see heat lightning on summer nights.

Myth: If you’re outside when a thunderstorm sweeps in, lie flat on the ground.
Fact: Don’t ever do this. Lightning draws positive electrical currents from the ground in all directions. Strangely enough, experts agree that the best thing you can do is crouch on the balls of your feet, cover your head and ears, and hope for the best. The few inches you can put between yourself and the ground might mean your life.

Helping Lightning Victims

The National Weather Service says that lightning victims are safe to touch immediately following a lightning strike, unlike someone who is still in contact with an electrical source like a power line or piece of electrical equipment.

Lighting victims need immediate medical assistance, so the first step is always to call 911. Since a lightning strike can cause cardiac arrest, the next step in many cases is to perform CPR if the person has no pulse and is not breathing. If an automatic external defibrillator (AED) and trained operator are available, use the AED to restore normal heart function.

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  1. June 22, 2013 at 12:04 AM

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