The Myth around closing Indoor Pools when there’s Lightning
August 05, 2011
Tom Griffiths, Ed.D.
Director of Aquatics and Safety Officer
Department of Athletics
Penn State University
Closing Indoor Pools during Lightning Storms is THE Great Urban Myth in Aquatics. It rates right up there with Blacks can’t Swim, Snapple supports the KKK, McDonalds put worms in Big Macs, Coca-Cola rots your bones and the Kentucky Fried Rat.
Why then do so may water safety professionals and organizations prescribe to this myth?
According to Heath and Heath in their popular and informative book, ‘Making it Stick’, Urban Myths stick like this one, because they have five important elements: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible and emotional. When it comes to the indoor lightning myth, credibility and emotion based on fear are two important and predominant traits making this particular myth stick.
This debate gained momentum when the National Lightning Safety Institute falsely claimed that both the NCAA and US Swimming required indoor pools to stop swim team practices and meets during electrical storms. Still to this date, the NCAA and US Swimming have yet to address the closing of indoor pools during lightning storms. To make matters worse, both the American Red Cross and the YMCA’s have recommended indoor pool closures during electrical storms, even though there is no scientific or medical evidence or even case studies indicating swimming indoors during electrical storms is dangerous. It must be emphasized that there has never, ever been one reported hospitalization of an indoor pool patron during an electrical storm. By way of comparison, since 1990 the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has reported scores of electrocutions and shocks at indoor swimming pools because of improper use of hair driers, power washers, power equipment, underwater lights and radios and other faulty electrical equipment, but NONE have been caused by electrical storms.
This debate has been a hot topic of discussion for decades yet during the past twenty years, the doom and gloom advocates for closing indoor pools have not revealed one case of a lightning strike, either directly or indirectly, to an indoor pool patron. Just as it is recommended to sit in a car or in a house when there is lightning outside, so should it be for indoor pools.
The National Electrical Code (NEC), which has been adopted by every governmental agency in the United States, requires electrical systems in buildings to effectively shunt the voltage generated by a lightning strike to the building or ground. If the electrical wiring/grounding in the aquatic facility meets code, the Indoor Pool should not close during outdoor electrical activity. Indoor pool closures during electrical storms is a violation of the NEC section 250.4 (A)(1) according to Vicki Weiss, Ph.D. She also believes closing indoor pool during electrical storm is an OSHA violation. To close an indoor pool during an electrical storms takes the patrons from a protected environment and places them more at risk, that is, on telephones, on computers and driving in storms, all of which have produced fatalities during electrical storms. Keep in mind that the Empire State Building in New York City gets struck approximately 100 times a year without injuries or incident.
The good news is that the tide is changing. Montgomery County Maryland Health Department no longer requires their indoor pools to close and the State of Delaware is likewise considering rescinding their policy. At Penn State University we keep our four indoor pools open during electrical storms with the approval of our Environmental Health and Safety Department, the Risk Management Department and our High Voltage Experts on campus.
If you want to manage your aquatic facility against the risk of electrocution and electrical shock, have a qualified and certified electrician inspect your pool and ancillary areas on a regular basis. Both the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (www.ieee.org) and the National Fire Association (www.nfpa.org), who develop the National Electrical Code, have education departments which can provide assistance. As Aquatic Risk Managers we have much to be concerned about in and around our indoor pools. Worrying about lightning near an indoor pool is a waste of time, energy and emotion. Let’s pick our risk management battles wisely and stop following ‘Urban Legends’.