Lightning Safety

by Craig S. Rapp in Safety Matters

Did you know there is no safe place outside when you get caught in a thunderstorm? According to the experts at the National Weather Service, if you can hear thunder, you are within lightning-strike distance. This should be all that anyone needs to hear. So, I’ll end the article here.

Well, I know that all of you love to read and delve further into my thoughts when it comes to all things safety, so I guess I shall continue.

Some interesting facts about lightning:

  • Lightning is hotter than the surface of the sun at a nice, balmy 50,000 F.
  • Reports show lightning strikes the United States 25 million times per year, and it can strike the same place twice.
  • It can strike throughout the entire year, not just the summertime.
  • According to the National Weather Service, lightning kills 20 people a year in the United States alone and injures hundreds more. OSHA has that total at 50, and this type of differing information is what leads to misinformation.

There are so many myths about lightning floating around that it can be hard to know what is real. We are constantly learning more about our environment, and our knowledge changes constantly.

One example of a lightning myth is, “If it is not raining, you are safe from lightning strikes.” The reality is that lightning often strikes up to 3 miles away from the center of the thunderstorm. It is also common for lightning to strike up to 15 miles from a thunderstorm. A certain documented case from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at Kennedy Space Center in Florida documented lighting traveling almost 90 miles outward from a thunderstorm center!

Another myth I have heard is, “If you are stuck outside in a thunderstorm, you should lie flat on the ground to limit your body’s exposure to a strike.” There are documented events where lightning has spread out up to 60 feet after it strikes the earth, so if you are lying flat on the ground, you are now at risk of potentially deadly ground contact. Your best bet is to keep running until you get to a substantial shelter.

Another myth I have read about is that rubber tires insulate you from a strike if you are in your vehicle. It is not the tire but the metal frame of the vehicle that protects you, by sending the lightning to ground. The lightning is powerful enough to go right through the tire. The problem would be if you were touching part of the metal frame when struck. This fact leads to the knowledge that convertibles, motorcycles, bikes and high-end sports cars with fiberglass shells offer no protection from a lightning strike.

What does OSHA say about working outdoors and lightning? To start with, OSHA does list jobs/industries most vulnerable.

  • Logging
  • Explosives handling or storage
  • Heavy equipment operation
  • Roofing
  • Construction (e.g., scaffolding)
  • Building maintenance
  • Power utility field repair
  • Steel erection/telecommunications
  • Farming and field labor
  • Plumbing and pipe fitting
  • Lawn services/landscaping
  • Airport ground personnel operations
  • Pool and beach lifeguarding

You see our industry listed along with steel erection. I understand this is in reference to tower construction; however, if you look at the rest of these industries, you will notice that our OSP personnel fit right into this group easily. Oftentimes they are working outside, on a rural roadside, next to a piece of machinery that may be loud, so they are wearing hearing protection. Subsequently they may not hear or notice the thunder, and they become vulnerable immediately. Therefore, it is imperative for crewmembers and supervisors to be watchful of the current weather and stop the outdoor activity when necessary.

OSHA advises the following: Check NOAA weather reports, seek shelter in buildings, use vehicles as shelter when possible and maintain landline safety (do not use a landline during a thunderstorm). The best rule of thumb to follow is to wait for 30 minutes after hearing the last clap of thunder before resuming work.

Consider the types of vehicles we use in our industry — pole trucks, bucket trucks, directional boring rigs, etc. — and the effect of a lightning strike on each. A strike to one of these vehicles can cause a fire/explosion. Teach your employees to respect the weather and follow the guidelines of lightning safety.

Another OSHA guideline is having an Emergency Action Plan (see 29 CFR 1910.38 or 29 CFR 1926.35) in place for what to do in the event of a storm. The EAP should include written lightning safety protocol such as:

  • Inform supervisors and workers to act after hearing thunder, seeing lightning or perceiving any other warning signs of approaching thunderstorms.
  • Indicate how workers are notified about lightning safety warnings.
  • Identify locations and requirements for safe shelters.
  • Indicate response times necessary for all workers to reach safe shelters.
  • Specify approaches for determining when to suspend outdoor work activities and when to resume outdoor work activities.
  • Account for the time required to evacuate customers and members of the public, and the time needed for workers to reach safety.

Training employees on what to do is essential to safety. NOAA has this advice to follow:

  • Lightning is likely to strike the tallest objects in a given area, so should not be the tallest object.
  • Avoid isolated tall trees, hilltops, utility poles, cell phone towers, cranes, large equipment (like those we use in telecommunications), ladders, scaffolding or rooftops.
  • Avoid open areas, such as fields. Never lie flat on the ground.
  • Retreat to dense areas of smaller trees surrounded by larger trees, or retreat to low-lying areas (e.g., valleys, ditches) but watch for flooding.
  • Avoid water, and immediately get out of and away from bodies of water (e.g., pools, lakes).
  • Water does not attract lightning, but it is an excellent conductor of electricity.
  • Avoid wiring, plumbing and fencing. Lightning can travel long distances through metal, which is an excellent conductor of electricity. Stay away from all metal objects, equipment and surfaces that can conduct electricity.
  • Do not shelter in sheds, pavilions, tents or covered porches, as they do not provide adequate protection from lightning.
  • Seek fully enclosed, substantial buildings with wiring and plumbing. In modern buildings, interior wiring and plumbing will act as an earth ground. A building is a safe shelter as long as you are not in contact with anything that can conduct electricity (e.g., electrical equipment or cords, plumbing fixtures, corded phones).
  • Do not lean against concrete walls or floors (which may have metal bars inside).

Safety is the preparation it takes to eliminate a hazard or mitigate an outcome. Elimination is always the best option. Often we are left with the option of dealing with the aftermath only. In this case, being proactive can eliminate the hazard and mitigate the bad outcome. If we follow some basic guidelines such as those laid out here, follow the warnings from our national weather service organizations, use our common sense and not get in a rush to finish a job, we can truly reduce the contact with lightning significantly.

Statistics and information gathered from osha.gov, weather.gov and noaa.gov.

Remember, we are here to help you and your employees stay safe, no matter the weather.

Do not hesitate to call me with any questions concerning safety and ways to mitigate risk within your organization.


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Telcom Insurance Group
National Telcom Corporation
Telcom Insurance Services Corporation

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Greenbelt, MD 20770

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