Lightning, an under-rated killer

Ellen Duysen
Center for Agricultural Safety and Health - UNMC

An underrated killer, hotter than the surface of the sun. That’s how the National Weather Service (NWS) describes lightning which, over the past 30 years, has been responsible for an average of 47 deaths per year.

According to the NWS, lightning strikes the United States about 25 million times each year. Since farmers work outside frequently, they are at greater risk for lightning injury and death than the average population.

“When thunder roars, go indoors!” That’s the mantra NWS Lightning Safety Specialist John Jensenius uses when promoting lightning safety. Staying aware of forecasts for your area and curtail outdoor activities when thunderstorms are forecast. At the least, make sure you have access to a sturdy, fully enclosed shelter. “If you can hear thunder, you’re close enough to be struck by lightning,” Jensenius said.

Stay aware of the forecasts and curtail outdoor activities when thunderstorms are forecast. If you have to be outside, make sure you have access to a sturdy, fully enclosed shelter. If a building isn’t available, a hard-topped vehicle with rolled up windows will provide protection.

Don’t wait to hear thunder when a storm is developing. Lightning can strike 10 miles or more in the area surrounding a thunderstorm.

A common misconception is that metal attracts a strike. Lightning seeks a connection and that connection is the tallest object in the immediate area. It could be a tree, a fence, the ground or a human.

Another misconception is that rubber protects you from a lightning strike. Protection inside a vehicle is due to the metal shell of the vehicle. The lightning will follow the metal shell, going around a person and through or over tires.

Enclosed farm equipment provides protection. Stay as far away as possible from windows and the vehicle’s metal shell.

Power radiates from the center of a strike Lightning striking the ground could injure or kill a person close enough to be affected by the radiating energy.

Water conducts electricty. “Don’t shower, wash dishes or use an electronic device during a thunderstorm,” Jensenius said. “Washing machines are especially dangerous because they involve both electricity and plumbing. Land line telephones are hazardous but cell phones and wireless phones are safe,” he said.

Stay away from windows and doors during the storm. It’s not safe to be on the porch when you hear thunder and see lightning. Direct contact with the ground should also be avoided since lightning current can move through soil and across wet/damp concrete. In a basement, garage or patio, wearing shoes is advised.

Unplug any electronic device you want to protect during a storm. Surge protectors and UPS units can’t provide direct-strike protection. Review property insurance to determine the level of lightning damage coverage it provides. Frequent off-site backups can help protect valuable computer data.

A power surge caused by lightning can damage electronics or generate a shock wave that fractures concrete, brick, cinderblock and stone. Brick and stone chimneys are often damaged by lightning. House roofs and attics are the most common sites of lightning-induced fires. Lightning strikes burn electrical wires posing the risk of fire anywhere along the electrical system. If a building is struck by lightning, call the fire department. Fire may not be immediately visible, but could be smoldering somewhere in the structure. Watch for falling debris resulting from damaged shingles, chimneys, or walls.

If a person is struck by lightning, immediately call 911. Lightning victims don’t carry any electrical charge so it’s safe to immediately tend to them. Cardiac arrest and irregularities, burns and nerve damage are all common when people are struck by lightning. CPR may be necessary but most people do survive lightning strikes, even though they may always experience the effects of the strike.

“Don’t stand outside and watch storms,” Jensenius said. “Plan ahead so there’s a safe place to go in the event of a storm. Stay inside for 30 minutes after you hear the last thunder. That allows the storm to move on and you won’t have to worry about lightning.”

Additional lightning safety information is available at