Staying Safe When There’s Lightning Around

Lightning is great to watch, and makes a superb subject
for videos or photographs – from a distance. But it’s
pretty scary when it strikes nearby, and every year there
are news reports of lightning fatalities.

So what are your chances of being struck by lightning?

Fortunately they are pretty slim. But that’s probably what
the hundred or so people killed by lightning in an average
year thought.

So while you or I are most unlikely to be struck, the
consequences are so severe that it’s worthwhile taking
every precaution to make sure that we don’t end up a
lightning statistic.

A Few Lightning Facts

  • Although lightning is known from volcanic eruptions and in smoke from very large fires, it is always present in thunderstorms, and thunderstorms can occur anywhere and at any time of year. In the US they are most common in Florida and nearby states, and overall are most frequent from April to July. Lightning fatalities are most common in July, probably because more people are out of doors at that time of year.
  • Lightning is a very high voltage electrical discharge, with its source in a thunder cloud. Most lightning moves between clouds, or from cloud to air. The cloud to ground strikes are rarer, but are the ones to worry about.
  • Apart from floods, lightning causes more deaths than any other severe weather event, including tornadoes and hurricanes. Figures are not precise, but around 100 deaths occur in an average year, while injuries are at least ten times that number.
  • Lightning injuries are most common before and after the storm has passed over – before and after the rain, winds and hail have caused people to take shelter. Another reason is that lightning bolts can travel distances of over 10 miles (16km) from the cloud before hitting the ground.These “bolts from the blue” may arrive before any thunder from the storm can be heard, and even before the storm clouds have been noticed.
  • Deaths and injuries occur most commonly to outdoor workers, hikers, campers, and people involved in outdoor sport or picnics, including sporting teams. Quite often, the victims have delayed finding shelter until the last minute.

More information on lightning can be found at my website,

Deaths and Injuries

A lightning strike is a very short lived, high voltage
electrical current, but has different effects to a
home or industrial electric shock. Most lightning
fatalities are instantaneous through failure
of the heart or breathing, or severe nervous damage.

Lightning deaths and injuries can occur in two ways – by a
direct strike, or indirectly from being within about 50
yards of the strike. A short-lived electric current can
travel through damp soil, wet grass, water, and along
fence wires, plumbing or underground cables. This
explains deaths or injuries to people who are indoors
but in contact with telephones, electrical appliances or
plumbing fixtures.

Unfortunately the effects of a non fatal lightning injury
are often severe and long lasting – often life changing.
They can include impaired mental ability and chronic pain.

But survival is better than the alternative, and immediate
first aid after a lightning strike is critical.

The first thing to remember is that the injured person is
not “live” – you won’t get a shock when you touch them.

Secondly, CPR – cardio pulmonary resuscitation – should
always be attempted if the victim has no pulse or is not
breathing. A lightning strike can stop either or both of
the heart or breathing.

Thirdly, medical attention is necessary, even if the
person seems to have recovered.

Reducing The Risk of a Lightning Strike

Many, if not most, lightning casualties are avoidable.
The small but real risks can be minimised by making a
few small sacrifices to your present enjoyment. The
peace of mind you gain will make it worthwhile.

Firstly, move to the safest possible shelter as soon as
you are aware of an approaching storm. Careful observation
of the weather is a good guide, and lightning detectors
are definitely worth considering, particularly if you are
responsible for others such as a children’s sports team
or an outdoor work crew.

In most cases, once you can hear thunder you are within the
danger zone, and it’s time to move quickly.

Now I know that almost every time an early move to shelter
will turn out to be unnecessary, and you may not always
get a warm reception for your course of action. But imagine
the alternative if half a dozen kids are injured or worse
after a lightning strike during a soccer or baseball game.

The best shelter is a fully enclosed building, bearing in
mind the easily avoidable risks associated with telephones,
electric appliances and plumbing.

Next best is an all metal car with the windows closed –
preferably not parked at the top of a hill or under a tall

Probably the third choice would be in a group of small trees
– assuming there are taller ones around. Tall trees are
high risk, as are isolated structures such as water tanks.
Partly open sheds are of dubious value and offer their
occupants little protection if struck.

Open spaces are dangerous places to be, and you should
have plenty of time to move elsewhere. Being the highest
point in a large area is not a good survival strategy.

If however you have no alternative, look for a lower area
that is not water logged, squat down on the balls of your
feet, with your head down. Don’t lie on the ground, and
stay away from wire fences.

And once you are safe, just sit back and enjoy the show.