Professional Development: Lightning Safety Tips

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By Don Leick
Published in the June 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

In the modern workplace, worker safety is more than a goal—it’s a mandate. Most facilities have established protocols and policies for fire and tornado safety. They may even run drills to simulate the proper evacuation procedure. It is common to have defibrillators positioned around a facility. Some employees may be trained in CPR. But do organizations have any kind of lightning safety plan in place?

Lightning safety is a serious issue for any company that has outdoor operations, whether that is in the form of loading docks, yards, outdoor cafeterias, or other facility activities that extend outdoors. However, while it is critical to ensure worker safety, it is also important to keep productivity high and maintain operational efficiency.

Stopping outdoor operations every time there are thunderstorms in the forecast is not realistic or productive. And waiting until lightning is in the sky or thunder is in the distance is a dangerous method of storm detection, given that lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from the main storm cell.

So how can facility managers (fms) proactively prepare for the threat of lightning and maintain safety without hampering productivity? Fms need a method for monitoring lightning.

Common lightning “detection” methods are both inaccurate and risky. For example, the “flash-to-bang” method, which attempts to measure the distance of lightning by counting the time between the lightning flash and the sound of thunder, is both inaccurate and relatively dangerous. When multiple flashes are occurring in a short time span, or when it is difficult to hear distant thunder due to noise from wind or machines, this method is not going to give fms an accurate measurement of distance. It is also dangerous because it requires the storm cell to be relatively close before any calculation can be performed. Further, the people responsible for taking safety actions may not be outdoors and would not be in a position to see lightning or hear thunder.

A real-time lightning detection service can automatically provide alerts when lightning strikes are detected within a pre-determined distance from the facility. Such services leverage lightning detection networks that have been built out across the entire United States. For example, one web-based weather monitoring service offers real-time lightning detection and will send automatic alerts via e-mail or text message when lightning strikes within a pre-determined radius of a prescribed location. The bottom line is that fms need the best possible information to make the most informed safety decisions, and that means having access to real-time lightning tracking.

The next step for fms is to develop a lightning safety plan. This entails determining which operations leave personnel at risk for lightning related injury and where personnel can be evacuated for safety from lightning strikes. This will help determine how much advance warning is needed to evacuate company personnel before lightning becomes a threat.

Determining the amount of time needed for personnel to reach safety helps the fm understand how large a geographic radius needs to be monitored. This ensures adequate time to get people to safety before lightning strikes occur. Multiple alert radiuses can be set up, including an initial caution alert and a nearer evacuation alert. Finally, fms should let all affected employees know what the safety protocol is and make sure they follow the protocol so there is no misinterpretation or debate.

As important as it is to know when to evacuate workers, it’s equally important to know when it’s safe to allow them to return. When sent outside too soon, they’re at as much risk as if they’d never been evacuated; keep them inside unnecessarily, and productivity decreases and cuts into the bottom line.

Modern technology provides fms with options that provide an “all-clear” notification when no lightning has occurred within the alerting range within a specified time period (usually 15 to 30 minutes). Furthermore, some weather services allow users to customize alert ranges and view map displays of current lightning strikes.

Lightning is a significant safety issue, and it needs to be taken seriously. Effective safety requires a clear protocol for employees to follow when a lightning threat is detected. Fms must make it clear this plan will be adhered to if lightning occurs, so there is no debate when prompt action is required.

Equally important to lightning safety is the implementation of robust threat detection tools. Personal powers of observation are no match for modern technology. A lightning detection system that avoids false alarms and provides unambiguous warnings is crucial to ensure employee safety and maintain operational efficiencies.

Leick holds the post of senior product manager director at Telvent DTN and has been with the company for the past eight years. Leick has almost 20 years of experience in software product management and 10 years of marketing and development experience.

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