With the coming of summer, the likelihood of thunderstorms and lightning becomes an increasing concern. But should you be worried? After all, your chances of being struck by lightning are about the same as winning the lottery, right?

If you merely calculated the number of lightning deaths across the total population, your chances of dying from being struck by lightning are about one in 2.8 million. But this figure is misleading. Some people are at much higher risk than others. Ben Franklin got away with flying his kite, and only experienced raising the hair on his knuckles. The next two experimenters were killed.

Variables play a role

Time spent outdoors is a key variable. Construction workers, baseball players and delivery persons, for example, must spend significantly more time outside than others. Your amount of outside exposure will significantly determine your level of risk.

What one does while outside the safety of a home or office building is a second significant variable. If you work in a park, you may be near tall trees. Likewise a construction worker working around steel beams or steel reinforcing materials experiences elevated risk levels.

Where one lives and works is a third factor in the risk equation. For example, certain areas of the country are known for the amount of lightning that occurs, while others experience many fewer strikes.

Where do you think the highest risk of being struck by lightning might be in the United States? If you said Florida — where thunderstorms are plentiful, most people live in urban areas and spend large amounts of time outdoors, often on the water or the golf course — you’d have guessed right.

Facts and figures

Understanding the circumstances that result in lightning injuries and deaths, as well as the magnitude of the risk, can provide a clearer picture of the threat to your safety and health.

The National Lightning Safety Institute reports that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published the following data for the years 1959 through 1994:

  • 27 percent of lightning strikes occurred in open fields and recreation areas

  • 3 percent involved heavy equipment and machinery

  • 84 percent of victims were male

  • Months of most incidents — June 21 percent, July 30 percent, August 22 percent

  • Time of day of most incidents — 2 to 6 p.m.

  • Top five states for lightning deaths — Florida, Michigan, Texas, New York, Tennessee

  • Lightning caused 7,741 deaths between 1940 to 1981, compared to 5,268 deaths due to tornadoes, 4,481 deaths due to floods, and 1,923 deaths due to hurricanes.

Myths and truths

Myth: Lightning only strikes very tall objects, or always strikes the tallest object.

Truth: Lightning strikes the tallest objects in a particular area. If there is a small tree in a field, and very tall trees surround the field, the small tree is just as likely to get struck by lightning as the tall ones. It’s also possible for lightning to strike the ground and miss the tree, if the field is large. Message: If you are out in the open and are surrounded by tall objects, do not assume you are safe from lightning.

Myth: Rubber shoes or boots insulate and protect against lightning strikes.

Truth: Lightning pushes its way through thousands of feet of air (a poor conductor), so a half-inch of rubber won’t stop the lightning. People who have been struck by lightning have often had shoes and other clothes blown off or apart by the powerful shock wave produced by the lightning.

Myth: Lightning only strikes good conductors, like metal.

Truth: Lightning is merciless. It will strike any substance in its path. It’s true, however, that lightning will strike the best conductor in a particular area. For instance, if there are two posts in a particular area, one of metal and one of wood, if they are far enough apart they are both equally vulnerable to a strike. Only if they are close enough together will the lightning be more likely to strike the metal post.

Myth: Lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice.

Truth: Lightning is random and generally unpredictable. We believe we’re safe when we may not be. It can strike up to 50 miles from a cloud, and even when the cloud can’t be seen because it’s over the horizon.

The Empire State Building in New York City can be struck as many as 15 or more times by a single passing thunderstorm. Roy Sullivan, a retired forest ranger from Virginia, is listed in the Guinness Book of Records for surviving seven lightning strikes. He was a human lightning rod.

Lightning safety

Lightning’s behavior is random and unpredictable. Preparedness and quick response are the best defenses against the risk of injury or death.

At the first signs of thunder or lightning, take these precautionary steps. Clear the area if you hear thunder. Move quickly away from the area or to shelter when you see lightning. Then take these actions:

1 Move into solid buildings and structures. If that’s impossible, move into an automobile. Relatively small non-metallic structures, such as pavilions, outhouses, sheds, bus shelters, or others do not provide protection.

2 If you’re in a house or building, do not use the telephone or any electrical appliance that’s connected to the building’s electrical wiring. Do not use showers, sinks, or anything where you’re in contact with the building’s plumbing system. If lightning strikes the building you are in, it’s likely that the current will flow through the electrical wiring or water pipes.

3 Stay away from tall, isolated objects, such as trees, flagpoles or posts. Dense woods are relatively safe because of the large number and density of the trees. However, don’t stand too close to any one tree.

4 Avoid open areas, such as large fields, parks and parking lots.

5 Stay away from lakes, ponds, railroad tracks and fences that could act as a conductor to bring the current from a distant lightning strike.

6 If you are caught out in the open without time to escape or find shelter, seek a low area (if time permits), crouch down, bend forward and hold your ankles. Position your head so that it’s not the highest part of your body, but don’t let it touch the ground. Cover your ears. Under no circumstances should you lay down.

7 If lightning is about to strike you or something relatively close, you may experience a tingling sensation on your skin and/or your hair may stand on end. If that occurs, quickly get into the tuck position.