When Lightning Strikes — Outdoor Workers Risk Injury In Alabama Weather
A flash of light. A clap of thunder. Lightning strikes a construction worker in Athens. While the worker lived, he is now disabled. He can no longer work or support his family. Can he recover Alabama workers’ compensation benefits for his disabling injury?
This is the issue faced by a recent client of mine. The worker survived only because two co-workers performed CPR until paramedics arrived. His physical injuries and rehabilitation were only part of the nightmare. When hospital personnel contacted the work comp insurance company, the adjuster immediately denied the claim on the basis it was an “act of God.” Think about the worker’s family. They stayed at his bedside for weeks not knowing whether he would live or how they would pay for his care. But, this injury SHOULD have been covered by work comp in this case.
Is lightning a work-related hazard? The short answer is that in the case of this outdoor construction worker struck while helping build the new Athens High School, it was. We were able to get work comp benefits for him. But, it took a fight to get him the workers’ compensation benefits he deserved. In most cases, the answer depends on the job.
Worker Safety Agencies Consider Lightning An Occupational Hazard Of Some Professions
Is lightning a hazard in some occupations? Absolutely. The Centers For Disease Control (CDC) has published research on the issue of work-related lightning strikes. According to the CDC, construction is at the top of the list for jobs with the highest risk for lightning strikes.
The Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) has also published information similar to the CDC findings. According to OSHA, workers in fields like construction, farming and outdoor landscaping are among the workers most at risk.
Of course, it’s common sense. Common sense. Construction workers are at greater risk. If you work outside with metal tools in all types of weather, you are at risk. This is especially true in Alabama where thunderstorms are common during large portions of the year. In our Athens case, the injured man worked outside with metal tools with thunderstorms in the area. According to the co-workers who saved his life, it even rained on them while they performed CPR.
Alabama Workers Injured By Lightning Are Entitled To Benefits If Their Employment Put Them At Increased Risk
Can you get Alabama workers’ compensation benefits if struck by lightning? In our case, the insurance company immediately denied the claim. But, it was wrong. Our client was entitled to benefits. It depends on the case.
Alabama courts have discussed work-related lightning strikes on several occasions. One recent Alabama Supreme Court decision contains the following:
When an ‘act of God’ or some other force not normally considered as having been set in motion by the employment is the ‘proximate cause’ of the employee’s injuries, however, operation of that force upon the employee nonetheless can be considered to have been ‘set in motion by the employment’ where the employment increases the employee’s exposure to, or risk of exposure to, that force in excess of that to which people are normally exposes in their everyday lives, i.e., when the increased-risk test is satisfied.
I know, that’s a long quote. But, the issue is pretty simple — Did the job increase the person’s risk of lightning-related injury beyond that to which normal people are exposed in everyday life?
Based on Alabama law, it’s a case-by-case decision. If you simply step outside your office door and get struck by lightning, you may not be entitled to benefits. In that case, you were not exposed to any risk beyond any normal person. But, if you are a construction worker outside around thunderstorms with metal tools, your risk is heightened. Your risk is much, much greater than a normal person. This is why my client working outdoors on a project in Athens should have received benefits from the moment of his injury.
Do we protect our workers? As a community, we should recognize the hazards unique to different types of employment. And, we should recognize when employers ask workers to put themselves at risk. When our neighbors put themselves at substantial risk for us, they should be protected by our workers’ compensation system.
From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm helps injured workers across Alabama.