Safety Tips for Lightning, Electricity

Doctor, Lightning-Strike Survivor Give Their Advice

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on June 27, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

July 27, 2005 -- The recent deaths of four Boy Scout leaders are reminding people of electricity's dangers.

The accident happened on July 25 at the National Boy Scout Jamboree in Bowling Green, Va. According to the Associated Press, the men lost control of a tent pole in a large dining tent. The pole struck power lines, electrocuting the four men and burning the tent.

Most people will probably never be in those exact circumstances. But summer's thunderstorms are rumbling across the skies, and electricity is in virtually every home in the U.S.

How can you stay safe or help people injured by electricity or lightning? WebMD talked to a doctor and a lightning-strike survivor for their advice.

Safety Tips: Lightning

The National Weather Service offers these tips for avoiding lightning:

  • Shelter in a fully enclosed building
  • Picnic shelters, carports, dugouts, and other partially open structures are not safe
  • Do not seek shelter from tall trees
  • If you're in an open area with no safe shelter, crouch down and balance on your toes or heels, to minimize contact with the ground

Get off the phone or computer, too, says Nelson Hendler, MD, MS, who has treated survivors of lightning strikes and electric shocks.

Hendler is the clinical director of the Mensana Clinic near Baltimore. He is also on staff at the medical schools of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland.

"What your mother told you, in this particular instance, really is true," Hendler tells WebMD. "Lightning can hit a house and come through the wiring and come through the handset," he says.

Safety Tips: Electric Shock

Keep hair dryers, radios, and other electrical devices away from water (such as bathtubs), says Hendler.

Outlets and electric gear should be properly wired and grounded, states the web site of the Electrical Library of Construction Occupational Safety and Health.

Other safety tips include:

  • Stay away from downed power lines
  • Report downed power lines to officials
  • If a power line falls on your car, drive your car until the wire falls off
  • Don't get out of your car or touch metal in a car touching a downed power line
  • Don't drive through puddles of water that have downed power lines
  • Don't use your cell phone during an electrical storm

Safety Tips: Helping Accident Victims

Hendler offers this advice:

  • Call for emergency help immediately.
  • Do not touch someone who is in contact with a conductor (like a downed power line).
  • People who have been struck by lightning do not conduct electricity unless they are touching a conductor like a downed power line.
  • Don't try to move downed power lines with your bare hands or material that conducts electricity. Using a wooden broomstick is better.
  • If you can do so safely, check the patient's ABCs --airways, breathing, and circulation.
  • Give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or automatic electric defibrillation, if needed.

Patients should be hospitalized for 36 hours, since some symptoms may not appear right away, says Hendler.

He recalls a patient in Alaska who was struck by lightning in an office with an open window. "Lightning came through the window. Two days later, he woke up and couldn't open his jaw. His fillings had fused together when he got hit by lightning," says Hendler.

Lightning Travels

Lightning can also travel through the plumbing and radio/television reception systems, as well as any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring, notes the National Weather Service.

"Do not lie on the concrete floor of a garage, as it likely contains a wire mesh," states the National Weather Service, noting that concrete basement walls may also contain metal bars.

Electric Shock Is Different

Many parents know to cover electrical outlets when there are small children in the house. But grownups also need to keep electrical safety in mind.

Electric shock is "different than lightning strike, believe it or not," says Hendler. "The quality of the electricity between an electric shock and a lightning strike is different. In the first place, lightning strikes about 10 million volts. But it passes through your body very, very quickly, and it's all direct current -- electromagnetic current.

Electric shock "ranges from 100 volts to 15,000 volts, thinking of the worst case I've ever seen," says Hendler. "A lot of other factors influence the electricity. ... What kills you is the current, not the voltage."

Survivor's Story

Steve Marshburn, Sr. of Jacksonville, N.C., was struck by lightning in 1969. He was 25 years old, with one son with cystic fibrosis and a daughter on the way.

Lightning was the last thing on his mind. "It was a civil service payday, military payday, garment plant payday. Everyone came to the bank. It was before the days of ATMs and direct deposit. You had to go to the bank," says Marshburn.

When a co-worker took a break from the inside drive-thru window, Marshburn pitched in. Lightning strayed from a storm 12 miles away, traveling through the ungrounded speaker and hitting him in the spine.

Brain 'Scorched'

The lightning knocked Marshburn to semi-consciousness. He heard co-workers saying, "Steve's been hurt," but they were afraid to touch him.

Marshburn saw a doctor the next day, after a night of severe pain. The lightning had fused nerves in his stomach and legs and scorched the left side of his brain, he says.

"It felt like my head would burst. It really did," he says. "My back, where [the lightning] entered, felt like someone had taken a baseball bat and hit me at full swing up and down my spine. I really thought it opened my spine up. It was not as bad as we thought, but it was bad."

Feeling Better Than Ever

Marshburn says he had cancer 19 years later in the spot where the lightning hit. Today, after many surgeries, he says he is cancer-free and feeling better than ever, despite memory problems from the lightning strike.

Marshburn used his experience to help others by founding Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International. The group offers free help to survivors or the families of lightning or electric shock victims, says Marshburn, the organization's president and chairman of the board.

How Many People Are Hit by Lightning?

Most people will never be struck by lightning. Still, lightning kills more people in the U.S. per year than hurricanes or tornadoes, and summer is the peak season for lightning.

That's according to the National Weather Service's web site. Every year, lightning kills an average of 67 people and injures many more, states the site. In 2003, 44 U.S. deaths were attributed to lighting, notes the National Weather Service.

Delayed Problems, Misdiagnoses

"Most doctors have never seen a patient who survives lightning strike," says Hendler. "Most of the emergency room docs are very well equipped to treat the acute component of the lightning strike survivor, but then the residual problems, they don't know what to do with them."

Those residual problems can include trouble with memory, nerve damage, pins-and-needle sensations in the arms and legs, and damaged discs in the spine, says Hendler, noting that many symptoms are misdiagnosed in those patients.

The effects are simply unpredictable, Hendler says.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Associated Press. National Weather Service: "Lightning Safety Outdoors." Nelson Hendler, MD, MS, clinical director, Mensana Clinic. Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety and Health: "Basic Electrical Safety." Steve Marshburn, Sr., lightning strike survivor; founder, president, and board chairman, Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International Inc. National Weather Service: "Lightning Kills, Play It Safe."

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