Golf course lightning safety: Four essential safety tips

Lightning on a golf course can endanger staff. Here's what to understand to keep your team safe.


Editor’s note: The following article was supplied by Golf Safety. All product claims, research cited and other information is directly from the company.

When preparing your facility and crew to stay safe in the face of danger, there’s a lot that you can predict. You know the hazards with equipment, vehicles, chemicals, and maintenance shops, and you can get your crew fully prepped on how to avoid and manage these dangers. However, one hazard on your course that is incredibly difficult to predict by its very nature is lightning. There are eight million lightning strikes worldwide every day. That’s 40 to 50 strikes per second. Between100 and 200 people are killed by lightning each year, while hundreds more are injured. Golfers and golf course employees are at an especially high risk when hazardous weather approaches because they are on unsheltered land.

This article covers what you should know about protecting your crew from lightning before an accident strikes. Lightning safety is a crucial topic to educate your crew on, so be sure to save these talking points to bring up whenever you bring in a new hire.

Brian Birney, CGCS of the Everglades Club (left), and Joe Dise, operations manager for Golf Safety (right), pictured underneath the club's lightning detection/siren system. Photo courtesy of Golf Safety.

Joe Dise and Brian Birney

Golf Safety spoke to Brian Birney, CGCS, Superintendent of The Everglades Club, in Palm Beach, Florida to learn more about how he handles lightning safety at his facility. A 15-year GCSAA member, Birney graduated from the University of Florida’s Turf Management Program in 2008, and is the vice president of the Palm Beach GCSAA Chapter.

What is lightning?

Let’s start this off by busting a common misconception: lightning doesn’t require a rainstorm to occur, just a cloud. Clouds are formed when the ground heats up, and water vapor cools and rises. As the water vapor continues rising, the top of the cloud gets progressively colder and starts to form ice particles. Those tiny ice particles collide with each other to create electricity, which turns into the positive electrical charge that forms lightning. This is the beginning of a thundercloud. At the same time, negative electrical charges build up on the ground, and concentrate in areas that are highest off of ground level. This negative charge attracts the positive charge inside of the cloud, and creates the ideal conditions for a lightning strike to occur. This is the reason lightning typically strikes the tallest points on a golf course, such as trees and antennas.

Lightining information diagram

Because of this, your crew should stay away from these areas during a potential lightning storm. Because golf courses have plenty of wide open space, there’s plenty of opportunity for a member of your crew to be the tallest point on level ground in any area on the course.

Lightning typically precedes heavy rains and usually occurs ahead of the storm. In some cases, lightning can even strike areas that receive no rainfall. This means that it’s important for you to monitor the weather and prepare your crew for a thunderstorm. If your crew is on vehicles, mowers, or tractors, or they’re using tools like rakes, shovels, chain saws, pruners, and ladders, they’re at extra risk of attracting the positively charged lightning, as the metal parts of these items are electrically conductive.

What are the best ways your crew can avoid getting struck by lightning?

First and foremost, as a superintendent, it’s crucial to provide your crew with access to up-to-date weather forecasts at all times. Grounds crew can only make informed decisions about lightning safety if they know a storm is coming. Encourage them to make a habit of checking the forecast multiple times a day, and have them check in with a supervisor if they’re doubtful about lightning safety around a certain task. A simple way to help your crew determine the distance of a lightning strike is to teach them the following method:

  1. Once you see the lightning bolt, start to count slowly, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc., until you hear thunder.
  2. For every 5 seconds you count, the lightning is 1 mile away.
  3. Take the total number of seconds that you counted and divide that by five.
  • 5 seconds = 1 mile
  • 15 seconds = 3 miles
  • 1 second = very close, seek safe shelter immediately.

Thankfully, many golf courses are outfitted with both a lightning detection system and sirens. If the detection system has not detected lightning and is signaling the “all clear,” but your crew can still see potentially dangerous weather, make sure they know to stay in their shelter, and advise their coworkers to do the same.

Lightining safety information

When asked about how often the alarm goes off at his facility, Birney explains that it goes off frequently during afternoon thunderstorms. “Normally, with our proximity to the coast, the sea breeze keeps the storms from reaching us. Some years are better than others,” Birney says. However, at the Everglades Club, any lightning alarm is treated as being a highly dangerous situation. It’s imperative that your whole crew understands what those sirens sound like and how to effectively and immediately take shelter when those sirens sound.

How can my crew effectively shelter from lightning?

There are plenty of safe shelters your crew should know about around your course to take shelter from lightning. These include tunnels, course bathrooms and cart shops. However, they should be made aware that the safest place in any storm is an actual building, like your maintenance shop, clubhouse or proshop, because of the solid construction and grounding. Cars and trucks also make a good shelter from lightning, but the same can’t be said for utility and maintenance vehicles, as their limited structure won't provide any cover to keep crew members safe.

Lightining safety information

At his facility, Birney explains, “all employees, members, and guests are required to seek shelter once the alarm goes off. The golf course maintenance team seeks shelter at the golf course maintenance facility if they are on the course.” He adds, “If they are at the clubhouse they remain indoors at the clubhouse.” Birney affirms that if the alarm goes off, no one should be allowed back on the course until there is an all-clear.

It is important that your crew knows exactly where they should go in the event of a thunderstorm to seek safety. “There are two shelters on the course,” Birney explains, “but the maintenance facility is centrally located in a position where everyone can return to in the event of an alarm.”

In the unfortunate event one of your crew members gets caught out on the course without shelter in a storm, make sure they know what to do. If they’re working on the course and feel the hairs on their body standing up, they should drop to their knees and bend over onto all fours. The static they are experiencing is due to electric charge building up in the air around them, culminating in a transfer of positive and negative energy in the form of a lightning bolt. The fetal position will give them a profile with minimal projections, which can act as discharge points for the lightning. In other words, if they’re standing up and do get struck, the lightning will travel from head to toe, passing through their heart on the way. If they drop to all fours, it may pass through an arm or leg but bypass the heart entirely, saving their life.

What should your crew do if someone is struck by lightning?

If a crew member does get struck by lightning, it’s imperative that you follow these steps in order to prevent any further harm:

  • Have either the first responder or someone on the site of the incident call 911 or the nearest emergency services and report their location, the nature of the emergency, as well as the patient’s status.
  • The first responder and the patient may continue to be at risk of further injury from lightning, so they should try to move the patient to a safe area, as long as there is no risk of further  injury. A lightning strike is unlikely to cause any damage to a patient’s spine or break any bones unless a secondary incident occurred from the lightning strike, such as falling from a ladder after being struck.
  • If your course has an automated external defibrillator (AED) and trained responders, they should be called as soon as possible.

Remember that a lightning strike is very likely to cause a heart attack because of the electric surge that passes through the body. The responding crew member must check for a pulse and breathing. If the patient has no pulse and their golf course has access to an AED, use it now. If they do not have an AED, begin CPR and mouth-to-mouth as necessary, assuming they have some knowledge of proper CPR techniques. If not, they should call 911 and ask for instructions. CPR and/or mouth-to-mouth should be continued as necessary up until emergency services take over the patient’s care.

Lightining safety information

A crew with adequate first-aid knowledge is invaluable, so it might be worth considering giving them extra first-response training as part of your safety training meetings.

Lightning safety on the golf course is a collaborative effort between you and your crew, and between the crew and their coworkers. A well-informed crew could mean the difference between life and death when dealing with lightning.

Birney says it best: “Our crew is the heart and soul of our operation. It's my job to keep everyone safe because it is the right thing to do. My goal at the end of the day is to make sure everyone can return to their families in one piece.”

The team at Golf Safety has produced dozens of comprehensive safety training videos in both English and Spanish to guide your crew through the best safety practices in your facility, including one on lightning safety! Click here to learn more about signing up for our safety training video streaming service, and make your monthly safety training sessions a breeze with included attendance registers and quizzes.