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Reduce Your Risk of Injury or Death from Lightning

The month of June is Lightning Safety Awareness Month, the peak time for one of the nation's deadliest weather phenomena. According to the National Weather Service (NWS), lightning typically receives less attention than other storm-related killers because it does not result in mass destruction or mass casualties. Over the past 30 years, however, the United States has averaged 51 lightning fatalities per year.

Only about 10 percent of people struck by lightning are killed. The other 90 percent must cope with varying degrees of discomfort and disability, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Most lightning victims each year are male. Lightning makes every single thunderstorm a potential killer, whether the storm produces a single bolt or 10,000 bolts.

No one can guarantee an individual or group absolute protection from lightning. However, knowing and following proven lightning safety guidelines can greatly reduce your risk of injury or death. The NWS advises everyone to have a lightning safety plan, check weather forecasts daily, and cancel or postpone outdoor activities if thunderstorms develop.

Most lightning victims are not struck during the worst of a thunderstorm but rather before or after the storm reaches its greatest intensity. This is because many people are unaware that lightning can strike as far as 25 miles away from its parent thunderstorm, much farther out from the area of rainfall within the storm. Therefore, if you can hear thunder, you are within striking distance. Seek safe shelter immediately. Remember this simple lightning safety rule promoted by the NWS: WHEN THUNDER ROARS, GO INDOORS...and stay there until 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder. Do not wait for the rain to start before you decide to seek shelter, and do not leave shelter just because the rain has ended.

If you have outdoor plans, be prepared by familiarizing yourself with the latest weather forecast before heading out. Upon arriving on-site, determine where you will seek shelter in the event of a thunderstorm and how long it would take to reach that shelter. A sturdy, enclosed structure with plumbing and electrical wiring is safest. If one is not available, however, most enclosed metal vehicles are safe alternatives. Not all types of buildings or vehicles are safe during thunderstorms. Avoid buildings with exposed sides including beach shacks, metal sheds, picnic shelters/pavilions, carports, porches, and baseball dugouts. During your outdoor activities, keep an eye to the sky for developing thunderstorms.

While inside, follow these lightning safety guidelines from the NWS:

  • Do not use corded phones: Cordless or cell phones are safe so long as they are not being charged.
  • Stay away from windows and doors: Sitting on an open porch to watch a thunderstorm is also dangerous. Go to an interior room during a thunderstorm.
  • Do not touch electrical equipment or cords: Any device that uses electricity (computers, televisions, household appliances) is susceptible to a lightning strike. Electrical surges caused by lightning can damage electronics (even at some distance from the actual strike), and a typical surge protector will do little to protect the device (or the person using it) if lightning should strike. Consider unplugging certain appliances or electronics, but for your own safety do this before the storm arrives.
  • Avoid plumbing: Metal plumbing and the water inside are both very good conductors of electricity. Therefore, do not wash your hands or dishes, take a shower or bath, or do laundry during a thunderstorm.
  • Refrain from touching concrete surfaces: Lightning can travel through the metal wires or bars in concrete walls and flooring, such as in the basement or garage.
  • If inside a vehicle: Roll the windows up and avoid contact with any conducting paths leading to the outside of the vehicle (metal surfaces, ignition, portable electronic devices plugged in for charging).

Lightning is one of the most erratic and unpredictable characteristics of a thunderstorm but knowing and following proven lightning safety guidelines can greatly reduce your risk of injury or death from lightning strikes.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(June 2019)

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Page last updated: May 31, 2019