Each year, two-thirds of all lightning-related fatalities recorded in the United States occur when people are engaging in leisure activities, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Lightning Safety Specialist John Jensenius. While the odds of getting struck by a fiery bolt from the sky in any given year is approximately 1 in 1 million, the odds of getting struck in a lifetime is 1 in 10,000. “It’s important for people to plan ahead,” Jensenius said.
Among the most common activities in which lightning caused deaths, fishing ranked the highest, dispelling the myth that golfing was among the highest risk activities.
“During this seven-year period, fishermen accounted for more than three times as many fatalities as golfers, while camping and boating each accounted for almost twice as many deaths as golf,” according to a report written by Jensenius. “From 2006 to 2012, there were a total of 26 fishing deaths, 15 camping deaths, 14 boating deaths and 11 beach deaths.”
“There are a couple of reasons for this. One, they are out in an open area or on a boat. Another factor is, if you are out fishing, it may take longer to make it to a safe place. Sometimes they are reluctant to get to a safe place.”
In addition, male fatalities outnumbered female fatalities at 82 percent of the total reported, 90 percent of which were fishing and sport-related, according to the report. Of all sport-related deaths in that time, soccer ranked the highest with 12 deaths followed by golf with eight deaths.
Of the fatalities recorded, 52 percent of the female deaths occurred during daily-routine activities, where most of the male deaths occurred during leisure activities, according to Jensenius.
In 2013, lightning-related deaths hit a record low with 23 reported fatalities, three below the record low in 2011.
“I think people are more aware of the dangers,” he said.
Jensenius attributes the decline in large part to increased awareness, decreased dangers in agricultural activities including safer equipment and a shift in the industry, as well as simple technological innovations like cordless telephones.
“From the 1940s to the 1970s, farming activities were one of the highest (in recorded fatalities),” he said.
Lightning will strike the highest object in a given area, Jensenius said, adding that people who are caught in the midst of a thunderstorm should avoid being the tallest object around and make their way to a safe place before the storm approaches.
According to the report, June, July and August are the top months for lightning activity and the peak months for outdoor activities, contributing to 70 percent of annual lightning-related fatalities in that time frame.
“Lightning can strike 10 miles from the storm,” he said. “People should get to a safe place as soon as they can hear thunder, especially if it takes more time to get there.”
Temporary rain shelters, pavilions and structures without plumbing or electric wiring are not effective shelters in a thunderstorm, he said.
“They don’t protect you at all,” Jensenius said, adding the safest place is either in a substantial structured building or a hard-top vehicle.
Avoiding windows and doors is also important to avoid the possibility of getting struck by the discharge. If you are unable to find adequate shelter, taking measures to reduce the risk of getting struck is important by avoiding being the tallest object in the area, according to Jensenius.
“If it will take you a long time to get to a safe area from where you are, perhaps you shouldn’t be there,” he said. “There’s not a lot you can do, so you would need to avoid standing under or near a tall tree, standing out in the open, and you don’t want to be on a hill; you don’t want to increase your risk.”
More information about lightning and lightning safety can be found by visiting NOAA’s official lightning safety website.
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