Globally lightning strikes kill more people in an average year than all other natural phenomenon combined. Many more are injured and some incidents are never reported.
Prevent the Risk of Lightning Strikes
Lightning safety is often a second thought when it comes to managing risks to workers. But business can’t just grind to a halt whenever a thunderstorm passes through. In areas like the Gulf Coast of the United States storms generate lightning almost every summer afternoon.
So how do you stay safe during a storm? The best way is to stay inside and keep away from windows, electrical equipment and plumbing.
Ok, that’s a lot to ask especially if you’re at work. Your boss might not understand why you are standing in the middle of the room on one leg when you should be doing other things; a bit more about the one leg theory later.
Education – If people do not understand the seriousness of a threat it is unlikely that they will take the steps to protect themselves and others.
Education on lightning safety is the best tool to lessen risks. Injury statistics and safety tips are available from government and private organizations around the world.
One workplace that operated tender vessels posted articles describing lightning related deaths and injuries. Requests for transport during strong storms were less frequent when operators had a bulletin board full of reasons to wait nearby.
Many people think there is only one outcome to a lightning strike; death. Unfortunately this is sometimes true. But for every death from lightning there are many more injuries and many are not reported in the official statistics.
Best Safety Practices – Lightning strikes are known to occur as far as 60 miles (96 KM) from the storm. Cloud to ground lightning is possible in dry or wet weather and occasionally well in front of the cloud formations of the storm.
As a general rule: If you can hear the thunder from a storm you can be struck by lightning.
Again, the safest place to be is inside. A vehicle, pilothouse, interior cabin or other structure will offer some protection. Keep in mind that electrical wiring, plumbing, and some less conductive materials can give lightning a path into a building. This can happen even if these systems are properly grounded to earth.
If you are outside without shelter stay away from tall objects that will attract lightning. While lightning does often strike tall objects it is a myth that only the tallest object will be hit.
Objects like cranes or trees can be struck and when the energy cannot be fully dissipated into the ground by an object it will seek other paths to the ground. This is called coronal discharge or coronal spray.
If you are in a small open boat stay low. If possible keep your head below the highest point of the boat. All passengers should refrain from touching any part of the vessel even if it is constructed of fiberglass.
Since lighting strikes seek the easiest and most conductive way to the ground it is important to keep yourself and others clear of its path. This is where standing on one leg comes in; by standing on one leg the path of the energy is directed to one side of the body and away from internal organs.
How is a Lightning Strike Different From Electrocution?
Electricity from a utility is sometimes referred to as technical electricity. Technical electricity has known properties like voltage, amperage, and frequency. The medical community has many examples of injuries from technical electricity and there are some standard treatments for common injuries.
The energy that makes up lightning is not very well understood. It is difficult to measure and properties change along with the climatic conditions and point of discharge.
High voltage and plasma physics can tell us a few things about lightning that are unexpected. High voltage, high frequency energy from lightning does not have to be linear. Technical electricity is a flow of electrons along a path, while lightning can take the form of a ball or cloud. This happens when there is not a good path to ground.
A phenomena known as Saint Elmo’s Fire is a relative and occasional precursor to lightning. An atmospheric charge can accumulate on the rigging and antennas on board a ship causing it to glow softly. Modern electronics must be protected from this charge so it is uncommon to see Saint Elmo’s Fire on modern vessels.
High voltage physicists tell us that lightning energy prefers to flow over a conductor rather than through a conductor. This can explain extensive burns on the skin of some lightning victims without injury to internal organs.
Injuries Due to Lightning Strikes
- Cardiac Arrest – This is the first injury that comes to mind for many people because it is the greatest killer of lightning strike victims.
- Blunt Force Trauma – Injuries from a fall after a lightning strike can be a secondary cause of injury. Injuries stemming from violent spasms of muscles can cause a victim to strike their head or other body parts against nearby hard objects.
- Drowning – Victims of lightning strike are often rendered unconscious or disoriented. In a maritime or shore environment a person may fall into the water and be drowned.
- Burns - This varies greatly between victims, some have deep tissue burns while others have no burns at all.
- Muscular and Skeletal Injuries – Two actions work to cause these injuries. As mentioned before a person exposed to energy from lightning may spasm violently, possibly hard enough to damage tendons and break bones. A lightning strike also causes a concussive force similar to an explosion. This force can throw a person a significant distance with external trauma and internal injuries like burst eardrums as a result.
- Nerve and Brain Injury – Lightning can damage the brain and nerves. The insulating layer of nerves called myelin is particularly susceptible to damage from lightning.
- Psychological Issues – Lightning injury is like many other serious accidents. The victim may experience mental trauma and unwanted physiological responses well after the incident.