Lightning and the Safety of Pedestrians


South Africa is well known for electrical storms and lightning. However beautiful this might be at times, it also presents a deadly and very real threat to those caught in the open.

According to the South African Weather Service, approximately 260 people are killed by lightning in South Africa each year. 

It’s not always possible to predict where and when lightning will strike, but here are some tips that will hopefully keep you, your family and possessions safe when the inevitable lightning activity happens.

Impact of Lightning on the human body

Severe electrical shocks, like lightning strikes to the body affect almost every organ and tissue, and may cause extensive damage.

Some of the after effects of a lightning strike includes, cardiac and pulmonary arrest (no pulse and no breathing), usually temporary paralysis, temporary deafness, and minor to severe burns.

Emergency Response if struck by lightning

  • If you are near a person that has been struck by lightning, immediately activate the emergency services.
  • If the person is unconscious and not breathing, start CPR, and an emergency call taker will talk you through the steps if you do not know how to do CPR.
  •  It is essential that CPR is started promptly, as the electrical shock may interfere with the electrical current of the heart, causing it to stop beating properly.
  • The patient may appear to be deceased in many cases as the electrical current having gone through the body stops the heart, and it will need to be restarted again. CPR is performed in long duration on these patients, where immediate activation of emergency care and starting of CPR, has a very good prognosis for these patients.
  • All patients that are affected by lightning strikes need to be further observed at an appropriate medical facility.

Be Prepared and ready to Respond

With our beautiful late afternoon thunderstorms, it is almost a guarantee that they will be accompanied by beautiful lightning. Thunder and lightning usually start some time before it starts to rain, so don’t wait until the rain starts before you take action and get to an area of safety.

Golden Rule: When It Roars Get Indoors

When Outdoors:

  • The first rule of keeping safe is to avoid being outside when there is lightning activity.
  • It’s also important to note that lightning often occurs around the edges of a thundercloud, so it doesn’t have to be raining.
  • At the first sign of lightning or thunder, it’s best to head inside a proper building (rather than a boma or other partial protection).
  • If you are unable to make it into a safe building, get into a vehicle, making sure the windows are shut.
  • A car is a safe place to find shelter. Even though a car is made out of metal, it acts as a ‘Faraday cage’ which prevents current from flowing through the vehicle and its occupants.
  • In the event that you are out in an open field and are unable to get to another area of safety, lie down or crouch on the ground until the storm has passed.
  • Also, if you are playing any form of sport outdoors, insist that your friends accompany you indoors.
  • Do not stand under canopy’s, porches, picnic shelters or trees as they do not provide much protection from direct lightning strikes or an electrical “splash” that may come from another object that has been hit.
  • At all times, indoors or out, avoid water (lakes, dams, river’s, water facets, showers, baths) as water is a really good conductor of electricity!
  • Stay away from trees, water, high ground or open fields.
  • Canopy shelters, as well as metal objects such as flag poles and light poles should be avoided.
  • Avoid using items such as umbrellas or golf clubs, or doing activities such as kite-flying.
  • Avoid swimming or standing on a beach, as lightning may strike at the water’s edge.
  • To be safe, it’s best to stay inside for 30 minutes after you heard the last clap of thunder.
  • Don’t forget to bring your pets inside. Doghouses and other pet shelters are not suitable protection against lightning strikes.

[A general good rule of thumb it to immediately make your way to safety when you hear the thunder and see the lightning.]

When Indoors:

  • Make sure that you are indoors, with all doors and windows closed.
  • Even though it is a beautiful show to watch, do not sit near the windows or doors, stay at least 2 meters away.
  • Lightning can damage electronics, telephones and other systems connected to an electrical outlet in your house.
  • Unplug all electronics, as lightning can strike power cables that are outside your home, and can travel into the electronic equipment via electricity cables.
  • Not only is there a danger of you being shocked if you are near the equipment when the lightning strikes, it may also become an expensive operation having to replace lightning damaged property.
  • Surge protectors can help, but remember that these are not fail-safe - if the lightning strike is a powerful one, it could still destroy equipment.
  • Protect your loved ones by making sure everyone stays away from all plumbing including toilets, sinks and taps, as water is a conductor of electricity.
  • Stay off corded phones, computers and other electrical equipment which puts you in direct contact with electricity.

Be cautious and aware during electrical storms. Rather ensure your safety than take any unnecessary risks!

Also view:

How to Perform CPR

Pedestrian Safety in South Africa

Safe Driving in Bad Weather

Safe Driving with Tractors