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This weekend the local press reported the sad and tragic loss of three lady golfers in the German state of Nordhessen due to lightning. A fourth lady was also critically injured. This incident serves as a reminder of the potential dangers which can arise as a result of sudden changes in the weather conditions and the need for careful consideration when deciding the most appropriate action to take.
Although the exact cause of the incident will be subject to a thorough investigation by the German authorities the reports in the press indicate that the golfing ladies sought shelter during the storm in an on-course cabin (described in German as a “Hütte”). However this shelter was situated on almost the highest point of the course. There were two lightning strikes: one hit a Cherry Tree next to the shelter and the other hit its roof. The electric charge was transferred via the open wooden construction to the bodies sheltering within.
Sadly on the same day another person in Rüdesheim in Germany was also injured by lightning. He was standing on scaffolding while working on the roof of a building.
In this article I will try to review some of the risks which can arise from lightning and consider some of the actions we can take (or avoid) when trying to prevent or mitigate injury.
First of all let us consider the types of locations where people have been killed or injured by lightning. In October 1997 the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published findings based on 35 years of US lightning statistics. The following information came from this study:
Location of the lightning incidents in the US (injury or death):
- 40% of the locations in the sample were ‘unreported’
- 27% occurred in ‘non-golf’ open fields and recreational areas
- 14% occurred under trees (again not golf related)
- 8% were water related (e.g. boating, fishing, swimming)
- 5% occurred when playing golf (including golfing incidents under trees)
- 3% were heavy equipment and machinery related
- 2.4% were telephone related
- 0,7% were radio, transmitter & antenna related
Gender of victims:
- 84% male; 16% female
Months of occurrence of most incidents:
- June (21%), July (30%), August (22%)
Days on which most incidents occurred:
- Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday
Time of day of the most incidents:
Number of victims in each incident:
- One (91%), two or more (9%)
These statistics help us to identify some of the higher risk activities, locations and times. This information is important when determining what to avoid and when to take extra care. Using this together with data from other sources the following summary of some key lightning safety related golf guidelines have been put together. These should help you to reduce the risk of being involved in a serious lightning injury or even death.
- Check the latest weather forecast and try to get an update immediately prior to playing (and preferably have some way of being alerted to sudden changes during the game). If there is a known danger of lightning it is better not to play. If you can see lightning and hear thunder you are already at risk. By the time the lightning is 10 km away you should be in, or quickly moving towards, safe facilities. Lightning distance can be estimated by the flash-to-bang method: 30 seconds between seeing lightning and hearing the associated thunder is indicative of a distance of about 10 kilometers (however this measurement is prone to inaccuracies because of the difficulty of associating the correct thunder-clap and lightning flash).
- Before starting to play, examine the terrain and determine what you would do if the risk of lightning arose. You need to identify safe places and estimate how long it would take to reach them as you proceed around the course. The ideal safe place should be a permanent substantial building of solid enclosed construction. An alternative, if this is not possible, is a fully enclosed metal vehicle with the windows wound up. Avoid contact with the metal or other conducting surfaces of the vehicle. Small on-course shelters are usually only intended to protect against rain or sun and therefore are probably unsuitable as protection against lightning.
- Avoid trees but be careful when doing so not to raise your own exposure level. The tallest trees are more likely to be hit and a side-flash could hit you. If you move to an open area to avoid trees you could become the tallest object in this area and make yourself a target. If you do get caught in the open try to make yourself the shortest, smallest target. Crouching down may help – covering your ears to reduce damage due to the sound of the thunder.
- Avoid any other raised objects like communications towers, flagpoles, light poles, metal fences, umbrellas, convertible vehicles, golf carts, etc.
- Avoid high places and open fields.
- Avoid water (oceans, lakes, swimming pools, rivers) – do not swim in situations in which lightning is likely.
- Inside buildings avoid using land lines (telephones, TV or computer connections). Avoid taking a shower, washing your hands, using the bidet, washing the dishes and any contact with conductive surfaces which could be exposed to the outside (e.g. metal door and window frames, electrical wiring, plumbing etc.).
It is very important not to be complacent and to do appropriate research about the likely weather conditions and your surroundings before commencing with the game. Also keep in mind that one of the most dangerous times for a fatal strike is before the storm escalates. Lightening can travel as far as 10 km nearly horizontally from the thunderhead. So it can actually strike while the day still appears to be fairly ‘sunny’. Another area of high lightning injury risk which is often overlooked is immediately after the storm.
The tragic accident in Germany highlights the need to take appropriate lightning safety precautions. I have tried to provide some pointers to stimulate thought and debate. If you see an important area I have overlooked or have something which you would like to add to this debate please use the comments box below.
I have prepared this article to raise awareness of risks during our private and sporting lives. If you are interested in the management of risks in a business context please consider taking a closer look at my book ‘Value TRAI Based Risk Management’ available in hardback from Amazon using this link.