Lightning can be a dangerous aspect of mother nature during thunderstorms. Just in the United States, lightning occurs 20 to 25 million times and around 300 people are struck by lightning annually. Around 50 people per year, on average, have been killed by lightning strikes and many more suffer permanent injuries. Lightning should be considered an occupational hazard by employers. OSHA and the NOAA provide recommendations and information on lightning safety when working outdoors.
Jobs that involve working outdoors in open spaces, on or near tall objects, or near explosives or metal have significant exposure to lightning risks. Some of the higher risk work activities include industrial, manufacturing, aviation, and the construction industries.
It is important to reduce lightning hazards when working outdoors by being informed and seeking shelter. Lightning is unpredictable and can strike up to 10 miles from the closest rainfall. Many lightning strike injuries/deaths occur because the victim did not promptly get to safe cover or they went back outside to soon after the storm passed.
Checking NOAA weather reports prior to beginning any outdoor work is an important first step to avoiding the hazards of lightning. Also, watching for darkening clouds and increasing wind speeds can indicate of a developing thunderstorm. Seeking shelter in an enclosed building is imperative to reducing lightning risks. It is important to remain in the building for 30 minutes after the last sound of thunder. If buildings are not an option, hard-topped metal vehicles with the windows rolled up should be used as a shelter.
Another important part of lightning safety is having a written Emergency Action Plan (EAP) which should:
- 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.
Workers should be adequately trained on lightning safety, as far as what to look for and what to do during a lightning storm. If caught outside in a thunderstorm, avoid tall objects such as isolated tall trees, hilltops, utility poles, cell phone towers, cranes, large equipment, ladders, scaffolding, or rooftops. Avoid open areas and bodies of water and retreat to dense areas. Also avoid wiring, plumbing or fencing and do not seek shelter in sheds, pavilions or tents as these do not provide adequate cover. It is also important to know OSHA standards, which prohibits certain work to be done during high winds or storms including –
- Work on or from scaffolds
- Work on crane hoists
- Work on top of walls
Employers must be aware of and take lightning hazards seriously. Proper precautions must be made to ensure that injury or death from lightning strikes are avoided.