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Did you know in the United States that cloud-to-ground lightning happens 20 to 25 million times a year? Even with such frequency, for some reason, lightning is overlooked too often as an occupational hazard. It doesn’t get the attention of other deadly weather storms, such as hurricanes, floods or tornadoes, because it doesn’t result in mass destruction or mass casualties. But anybody working outdoors in open spaces, on or near tall objects or near explosives or conductive materials have a significant risk to being struck by lightning.

In a typical year, the central Ohio Valley, including Indiana, sees some of the most frequent lightning activity across the United States. Summertime is the peak season for lightning and a great time to educate your employees about lightning and what precautions should be taken to prevent worker exposure to this dangerous natural force.

Lightning 101 – When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!

  • Lightning can strike as far as 25 miles away from its parent thunderstorm – much farther out from the area of rainfall within the storm.
  • Thunderstorms always include lightning – any thunder you hear is caused by lightning.
  • Nowhere outside is safe when thunderstorms are in the area.
  • If you hear thunder, you are within striking distance.
  • Seek safe shelter and stay there until 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder.
  • Don’t use corded phones as this is one of the leading causes of indoor lightning injuries – cordless and cell phones are safe to use as long as they are not being charged.
  • Stay away from windows and doors.
  • Don’t touch electrical equipment or cords as anything using electricity is susceptible to a lightning strike.
  • Avoid plumbing as metal plumbing and the water inside are both very good conductors of electricity.
  • Refrain from touching concrete surfaces – lightning can travel through the metal wires and bars in concrete walls and flooring, such as in a basement or garage.

Remember, there is no safe place outside during a thunderstorm, so seek full-enclosed, substantial buildings with interior wiring and plumbing as these will act as an earth ground. But what if workers are caught outdoors?  These are National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) recommendations to decrease the risk of being struck:

  • Lightning will likely strike the tallest objects in the area, so make sure it’s not you.
  • Avoid such things as isolated tall trees, hilltops, utility poles, cell phone towers, cranes, large equipment, ladders, scaffolding or rooftops.
  • Avoid open areas, such as fields, and never lie flat on the ground.
  • If you must be near trees, find a dense area of smaller trees that are surrounded by larger trees or retreat to low-lying areas.
  • Avoid water – immediately get out of and away from such places as pools, lakes or oceans.
  • Avoid wiring, plumbing and fencing as lightning can travel long distances through metal.

Many people often wonder about the safety of their own vehicle during lightning. There have been enough reported incidences and injuries to know the myth of being completely safe in a car is just that - a myth. If you find yourself in your car during a lightning storm, it is best to pull off to the side of the road, turn on your emergency blinkers, turn off the engine and put your hands on your lap until the storm passes. Do not touch door or window handles, radio dials, CB microphones, gearshifts, steering wheels and other inside-to-outside metal objects.

On the other hand, heavy equipment, such as backhoes, bulldozers, loaders, graders, scrapers and mowers, which have an enclosed rollover system canopy (ROPS) are considered safe, so you should shut down the equipment, close the doors and sit with hands in lap until the storm has passed. Smaller equipment without ROPS, such as small riding mowers, golf carts and utility wagons, are not safe, and you should leave these vehicles for safe shelter.

Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace for their employees, which includes but is not limited to having an Emergency Action Plan that addresses lightning safety protocol for outdoor workers, posting information about lightning safety at outdoor worksites and offering safety training to their employees. Workplace Safety & Health Co. is here to help you keep your employees safer in thunderstorms and in all kinds of weather. 

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