A restaurant manager taking out the trash in Virginia, a tree trimmer in Ohio and an Alabama school coach sitting inside at a desk are all workers who inadvertently joined a unique club this year: lightning strike survivors. In any given year, the odds of being struck by lightning are about one in a million, but the lifetime odds (over 80 years) are 1 in 10,000. About 90% of all lightning strike victims survive. About 25% of the survivors suffer major medical after effects.
This week is Lightning Strike Awareness Week - and the National Weather Service wants to remind you to be safe. Public awareness campaigns appear to be working because lightning-related fatalities have been trending down in recent years. While there are 55 fatal lightning strikes in an average year, in 2010 there were 29 fatalities, which occurred in 19 states in 2010; in 2009, there were 34 fatalities; in 2008, there were 28 fatalities.
There have been 5 lightning-related fatalities in 2011, one each in LA, MO, MT, NC, PA. Three deaths occurred during agricultural work, one was related to tornado search-and-rescue, and one occurred during golf. While lightning strikes can occur in any month, they spike in the summer months.
When it comes to geographical risks, not all locations are equal - some states are riskier than others. Florida has often been called the "lightning capital of the world," and although NASA scientists have clarified that Rwanda actually holds this dubious title, Florida still holds the North American title. Rounding out to the top five states for lightning-related fatalities, we have Colorado, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina.
Are lightning strikes compensable under workers comp?
The answer to that question is a clear and resounding "maybe." As with so many issues in workers comp, the devil is in the details: state law, where and when the injury occurred, and the nature of the work involved all are factors that come into play. Injuries related to lightning and other weather-related events fall under the murky area of "acts of God" or "neutral risks," which are generally not considered to be the responsibility or liability of the employer. However, if a worker is exposed to heightened risk due to the nature of their work responsibilities, an injury related to a lightning strike could be compensable.
Often, the burden is on the employee to establish a causal link between their injury and their work or to prove that their job exposed them to increased or heightened risk. Recently, however, the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld benefits for a framer who suffered injuries related to a lightning strike that occurred while he was at work. The court established that he did not have to provide expert testimony to establish increased risk. "The court concluded that the description of the physical characteristics of the jobsite supported a finding that the framer was at an increased risk of a lightning strike."
Employers certainly can't insulate their workers from "acts of God" but there are steps that employers can take to mitigate risk. It's a good idea to review weather-related hazards with your employees seasonally to raise their awareness about safety best practices both on the job and off. And it is important to take particular care with workers who have outdoor responsibilities or work that might put them at heightened risk. Here are some tools & resources: