Lightning Safety in Sports: ‘‘When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!’’

In March 2013, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association published a position statement on Lightning Safety for Athletics and Recreation. The purpose of this article was to provide recommendations for the prevention, education and management of lightning injuries during sports and recreation.

Since 2003, lightning has been responsible for approximately 42 deaths annually, and more than ten times as many injuries. Lightning injuries and deaths rose 15% in sports in 2005 and increased by more than 25-30% recreationally. The National Weather Service states that in 2011, 62% of lightning fatalities were attributed to sport.

Most cloud-to-ground lightning strikes (90%) occur within the area of rain falling on the ground. The remaining 10% of cloud to ground strikes usually happen as far as 5 to 10 miles away from the edge of the rainfall. Lightning may strike upwards of ten miles from the parent thunderstorm. What we see as lightning is the intense optical radiation from the heated air. It is possible to see lightning without hearing its thunder, however thunder never occurs in the absence of lightning. The typical audible range of thunder is about 10 miles, but can be more or less depending on local conditions.

While some regions of the US are more prone to lightning and severe weather, no location is safe from lightning. Lightning is a threat to the physically active because of the tendency towards afternoon to early evening thunderstorms, when many are outside participating in sports.

Each year, approximately 25 million lightning strikes hit the ground in the United States. Supervisors of athletics and recreation should become educated in the prevention and management of lightning-related injuries, and parents and athletes should also do their best to protect themselves. Sports and activities should be suspended at the first sign of thunder or lightning in the area. Play can resume thirty minutes after the last lightning strike or sound of thunder is heard.

The NATA suggests an Emergency Action Plan (EAP), which includes the following components: Promote lightning-safety slogans supported by the National Weather Service.

‘‘No Place Outside Is Safe When Thunderstorms Are In The Area!’’ ‘‘When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!’’ ‘‘Half An Hour Since Thunder Roars, Now It’s Safe To Go Outdoors!’’

Establish a chain of command that identifies a specific person (or role) who is to make the decision to remove individuals from the field or activity. This person must have recognized and unchallengeable authority to suspend activity. Use a reliable means of monitoring the local weather. Before the event, identify a specific person (a weather watcher) who is responsible for actively looking for threatening weather and is charged with notifying the chain of command. Identify safe locations from the lightning hazard in advance of the event for each venue. Identify specific criteria for suspending and resuming activity in the EAP.

For more information on Lightning Safety, visit the NATA website at www.nata.org.

–By Julie Dutton, ATC, LAT,Director of Athletic Training Services

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