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In June 2013, lightning struck and tragically killed a construction worker on a jobsite near Naples, Florida. According to local reports, the worker saw severe weather approaching and decided to head down from the rooftop where he had been doing rebar work. Unfortunately, lightning struck as he climbed down the scaffolding.

While concentrating on the job at hand, it’s tempting to shrug off approaching severe weather and remain on the site to get a few extra minutes of work completed. But the results, as this recent event demonstrates, could be deadly.

A Real Danger

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an average of 53 people are struck and killed by lightning each year in the United States. Hundreds more suffer lifelong injuries, including hearing and vision loss, from a direct or even an indirect hit from a lightning strike. Being struck by lightning may be more common than most people think. According to the National Weather Service, an individual’s chances of being struck over the course of a lifetime are about one in 10,000. In comparison, winning the Mega Millions jackpot odds are 1 in 175 million and winning the $10,000 Mega Millions prize for picking four out of five correct numbers and the Mega Ball is about one in 689,000.

The majority of lightning deaths occur during summer months, when storms can be frequent and people are more likely to be outside. Not surprisingly, deaths resulting from lightning strikes have been most common in states that see the most thunderstorms every year. Florida is widely considered to be the lightning capital of the United States, and more people have been struck and killed by lightning in Florida that any other state.

Many contractors often spend long hours working outdoors, which puts them at a greater risk. Adding to the danger, construction sites often are replete with items such as tall metal towers and scaffolding, which are more likely to get struck by lightning. Metal pipe, phone lines and fences all can carry an electric current, and water conducts electricity. Jobsites also may be large and open, which increases the time workers need to move to adequate shelter.

Sheltering From the Storm

Seeking shelter after hearing thunder and spotting a lightning flash help many employees know when to stop work and find more substantial shelter on the jobsite. As a rule of thumb, if a worker is close enough to see the lightning or hear thunder, he or she is already in danger. Lightning can strike well outside of the rain-producing portion of a thunderstorm and even outside of the main storm entirely. In fact, a strike about 10 miles from a storm is not uncommon.

If a storm is on its way, stop all work and move to a safe indoor area. Typically, this would be a permanent, enclosed building with four walls and a roof—not a pavilion, tent or open structure. If this type of building is not available, cars or trucks are better—but not ideal—choices, and can provide some protection if all of the windows are closed.

When no good shelter is available, avoid trees and tall objects. It is much safer to squat low to the ground. Cover your ears and make as small of a footprint as you can, so only your feet touch the ground.

No doubt, inside a substantial shelter is the safest place during a storm, yet some dangers remain.

  • Do not use corded phones. Lightning can travel through phone lines.

  • Lightning can also travel through pipes. Cease indoor work on metal pipes and wiring.

  • Have flashlights ready. Power failures often occur during thunderstorms.

  • Unplug or turn off tools and machines. Lightning can cause damaging power surges.

Always wait 30 minutes after the last flash of lightning before returning to work.

Lightning Safety Tips
  • Check the forecast before heading out. Use a smartphone, check the radar and use the lightning detection features in the weather app (for example, WeatherBug) to check if storms are heading your way.

  • Scan the sky for large cumulus clouds, which are large towering white, rounded clouds with grayish or dark undersides. Cumulus clouds offer early signs of thunderstorms.

  • To check the distances of the storm, use the 30-second rule. Count how many seconds from the flash until you hear thunder. More than 30 seconds means you are at least 6 miles away from the storm. Less than 30 seconds means you are in danger and should seek shelter.

The nonprofit organization StruckbyLightning.org offers these tips for helping someone who has been struck by lightning.

  • People struck by lightning carry no electrical charge and can be handled safely.

  • Call for help. Get someone to dial 911 or the local emergency medical services number. The injured person has received an electrical shock and may be burned where they were struck and where the electricity left their body.

  • Give first aid. If breathing has stopped, begin rescue breathing. If the heart has stopped beating, a trained person should give CPR. It is important to help victims as soon as possible. If left untreated, people struck by lightning can suffer from a variety of long-term, debilitating symptoms.

The good news is that lightning deaths have decreased during the past five years. Education has played a major role in reducing deaths and injuries. The popularity of tools such as smartphone apps that track the weather and inform users of lightning strikes close to their location also have contributed to safety.

The next time you are in the path of thunderstorm, remember: “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors.” It could mean the difference between life and death.


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