Lightning Safety for Movie Crews
IATSE Local 479 Summer Safety Series: with the arrival of Summer people who work outdoors face a number of additional health safety dangers, from weather extremes to risk of disease. The Contract Services Administration Trust Fund (CSATF) provides an extensive library of safety bulletin on a wide variety of topics, including inclement weather.
One unique aspect of the film industry is the ever-changing nature of the workplace; some days crews may find themselves working on a sound stage under controlled conditions, while other days they’re at an exterior location, completely at the mercy of mother nature. Exterior locations can prove dangerous for any number of reasons, but in the summer (in the south) one very prominent danger comes from the sky: lightning strikes.
Potential hazards associated with lightning include electrocution, burns, falling debris, concussion, and fire. Every year the United States experiences more than 20 million cloud to ground lightning strikes, with more than 300 people falling victim to this wild electrical phenomenon. Of those struck, 50 people on average lose their lives. Those who survive often suffer from a variety of permanent disabilities.
CSATF Safety Bulletin
CSATF Safety Bulletin #38 ‘Guidelines for Inclement or Severe Weather’ addresses flash flooding, lightning, high winds, large hail, blizzard or severe snow storms, tornados, and hurricanes. On the topic of lightning it warns that “Lightning may strike several miles from an associated thunderstorm and may strike when no clouds or rain are present.”
Download a PDF of CSATF Safety Bulletin #38
Bulletin #38 recommends that the locations department and production form an Action Plan prior to location work. This action plan should include a method of communication with cast and crew in the event of any form of inclement or severe weather, should be responsive to site and conditions, and outlines “methods and routes of evacuation, meeting areas, a means of establishing a head count for cast and crew members and procedures for equipment shut-down, stowage and/or removal. If there is the possibility of inclement or severe weather, a “safety meeting” shall be held to review and communicate the elements of the action plan.”
While the 1st AD is often the individual in charge charge of determining when to pause shooting due to weather conditions, Article 10, item (C)(2) of the Area Standards Agreement states more generally that:
Call sheets shall identify the name and phone number of the Employer’s safety contact, which may be an individual or a department, as well as the phone number for the Employer’s safety hotline.
In the Event of Lightning
If lightning is detected near your shooting location the Locations Department and/or Production should activate the Action Plan. If lightning strikes within 6 miles of your location the crew is in potential danger and should seek shelter. Since productions typically operate a portable generator to provide power to exterior locations it is routine procedure to shut that generator down if lightning is detected within 10 miles of set.
Photo of generator by Lightnin’ Rentals
For this reason the Gaffer often participates in estimation of the proximity of lightning to the set. They may use a dedicated lightning detector/meter or perform a simple visual/auditory measurement, which you can perform on your own.
The 30-30 Rule
From the moment you see a flash of lightning begin counting how many seconds it takes before you hear the rumble of thunder. Take that number and divide it by 5 to obtain the approximate distance from your location to that of the lightning strike. Using this simple formula we see that a flash of lightning followed 20 seconds later by thunder reveals a lightning strike about 4 miles away from your location.
Safety Bulletin #38 offers the 30-30 Rule for your safety:
The first 30 means if you count to 30 seconds or less (from lightning to thunder), the lightning strike was within 6 miles of your location and you are in potential danger and should seek shelter. The second 30 means you should wait 30 minutes from the last flash or thunder to establish an “all clear.”
If the action plan is implemented it is recommended that you seek shelter in a pre-determined evacuation area. If an area has not been identified seek shelter inside a sturdy building or a vehicle with a hard top (avoid convertibles) with the windows rolled up. If you are in an isolated location, lacking buildings or vehicles avoid high ground and keep clear of tall objects like towers, aerial lifts, camera booms, light stands, scaffolding, fences, or any other metal equipment.
You may seek shelter in thickly wooded areas with small trees, but avoid isolated trees.
Until the storms have abated avoid contact with any body of water and avoid using land line phones, cellular phones, or any other type of electrical equipment or appliance.
Finally, do not attempt to return to set until an official “all clear” signal has been issued.