Save Yourself Because Your Employer Doesn't Have To

Let's say Zeus is feeling peckish. Hera's up there threatening to take half of Mount Olympus in a nasty divorce. Down below, through a haze of developing clouds, the god spots a truck with a 40-foot metal stick rising out of it. Lightning bolt in hand, Zeus takes aim.

Who in their right mind would have the mast of an ENG truck up in an electrical storm anyway? And who in their right mind would raise it into a 35,000-V power line? No one...intentionally.

Everyone makes the occasional mistake, but when you're messing with high voltage, there is no margin for error. Power line engagement is more of a concern in the industry than ever before, with a series of ENG truck accidents that occurred in May 2000 prompting Cal/OSHA (the California branch of OSHA) to be the first among the state OSHA agencies to draft ENG safety requirements. Less of a concern, but easily more insidious, is the danger of lightning.

Not Against All Odds

Lightning is fickle, powerful, and frequent. It strikes the contiguous U.S. about 20 million times a year, each bolt bringing with it the instantaneous force of up to 3,000 high-voltage power lines. It can strike 10 or more miles away from an active storm cell.

You actually have a better chance of being struck by lightning than winning the lottery. According to industry statistics, around 1 out of 10 to 20 million players win the lottery. About 1 out of 280,000 people get struck by lightning, according to Mary Ann Cooper, M.D., University of Illinois at Chicago.

Lightning strikes anywhere from 400 to 1,500 people a year. The death toll is around 75 to 125; more than the death toll for hurricanes or tornadoes. If your job has anything to do with 40-foot metal sticks, or even getting weather video, your odds of getting hit shoot up considerably.

Jimmy Sena's number hit on July 2 at around 6 p.m. Sena, the chief photographer of KMOL in San Antonio, was out getting storm video.

"I wasn't working in a live truck. In fact, the night before, we'd called off a live shot because of lightning," he said. "If we see lightning in the area, we call off the shot. Even if it's miles away, we call off the shot, because it can still hit the truck."

Sena's voice is quietly controlled, that of a man recounting each frozen second of a nightmare: "That night, I was in the southeast part of town, where a storm cell was coming in. As I pulled in, lightning hit a transformer about 100 yards in front of me. I took off in the other direction, but in my ignorance, I thought it wouldn't strike twice in the same place, so I set up to shoot [the transformer].

"I was about four or five miles away. The sky was clear above me. As I was shooting video off in the distance, there was a very light rain coming down. Lightning stuck about 10 feet behind me. I turned around and saw the fence sparking."

Sena didn't feel any immediate effects of the strike. He called Hollis Grizzard, his assignment desk editor. Grizzard told him to get out of the area. When Sena started driving away, his hands and jaw began to tingle, and his stomach started to hurt. He once again called Grizzard, who told him to pull over immediately. As soon as he did, Sena's entire body seized up.

"My eyes clamped shut, my hands, my stomach, my legs...I was trying to talk to the desk, but it was difficult because I couldn't speak. I became paralyzed," said Sena. Grizzard, he said, called 911. Sena was taken to the emergency room and admitted to intensive care. A doctor later told him his muscles had gone through the equivalent of a 100-hour aerobic workout.

No Safety Net

Whereas power line burns usually leave obvious marks on the body, lightning causes destruction to the nervous system. Limitations of physical disfigurement are at least visually assessable. Not so with the nervous system. Headaches, fatigue, confusion, and chronic pain are common lifelong symptoms of nervous system damage. The pathways that once led to a variety of memory information are gone. No job is worth that kind of sacrifice, and you would expect any industry that incurs the increased risk of lightning injury to have correlative guidelines.

You would be wrong.

The lack of ENG safety training and guidelines is one of the most long-standing and contentious issues in the industry, and one of the most baffling. A few simple and often repeated rules could save lives, yet they do not exist. The Society of Broadcast Engineers began penning a manual, but abandoned the process. Fox pulled an ENG safety Web page, deeming it inappropriate for a public-access site.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association refers all safety queries to engsafety. com's Mark Bell, the man who has been carrying the torch for safety in the pages of this magazine for years. Chief engineers, news operations managers, association officials, and even manufacturers refer safety queries to him. He is Mr. Safety (see page 44). Unfortunately, superheroes don't really exsist.

Several industry sources said publishing safety guidelines is avoided out of fear of liability. Imagine this: "Your Honor," says a station manager, "we rely on Mark Bell's advice for safety."

Note to industry: Not the greatest liability defense of all time.

Quite frankly, it's more likely for lightning to strike a person than it is to prove liability for it in court. First of all, worker's compensation laws generally shield employers from liability, unless the employer has been downright malicious. Second, it's hard to prove someone made you get hit by lightning.

"Presumably this would entail an employer forcing a worker to work in weather conditions where there is lightning," said Robert Bleakey, an attorney in Tampa, FL. "A worker would have to show a lightning bolt hitting him was Îvirtually certain' to occur. My best guess is that a defendant [that] can statistically show a lightning strike is a very low probability."

A lot of lightning litigation is dismissed because judges figure if you're standing on a golf course or on a beach during a thunderstorm, you're asking for it. One case in Florida, however, persisted in the court system until it was settled in 2000.

Over a period of two years in the early 1990s, three 911 dispatchers at the same facility took lightning bolts through their headsets. The blasts nearly deafened one dispatcher and completely disabled the other two, who separately sued the county for liability. The plaintiffs ended up taking minor settlements because of legal technicalities, such as not being able to tell a jury that other dispatchers had their headsets blown off, and that an engineering audit of the facility revealed that it was a disaster waiting to happen.

Although the cases were settled, the fact that they weren't summarily dismissed indicates that demonstrating "virtual certainty" is not a virtual impossibility. Let us not forget that the interpretation of law is directly proportional to the persuasive powers of a given attorney.

There's also third-party liability, which is why the bottle of Corona Light in my refrigerator tells me it can cause impaired motor function and all-around stupidity. I don't need the Surgeon General's warning to tell me that beer can get me drunk. Years of research bears that out. But Corona or any other beer manufacturer aren't about to expose themselves to a lawsuit if I decide to get drunk and drive into a tree. Product liability is why ladders tell you not to fall off of them.

But in television, there is another third party, and that's the network. "An injured employee of a network affiliate may, under certain circumstances, seek to hold the network itself liable," said Tony Natale, a commercial litigation attorney at Pepe & Hazard in Hartford, CT. "If for example, the network provided training to employees of an affiliate, but they failed to completely educate and train employees of that affiliate about what to do during an electrical storm, the network could be held liable. If the network assumes the obligation to train employees of an affiliate, then the network has an obligation to provide such training in a non-negligent manner."

Therein lies the legal excuse for not providing any training whatsoever.

The Tangled Web We Weave...

To their credit, there are people in this industry who have put employee safety before their concerns about liability. ENG crews at Cox Radio in Birmingham, AL get training from Alabama Power and go through reviews every six months. CBS has an excellent safety manual, available at Several news managers confirmed their stations have some kind of training, and that lightning danger is a call made in the field.

Cal/OSHA is very close to implementing ENG safety standards in California, thanks to the energy and agitation of several unions and persistent individuals. The problem with them all, however, is a lack of uniformity. Some say 10 feet is enough clearance for a 50,000-V power line. Others say 75 feet for any power line, because streets are seldom level, and also because of the potential for sway. Some recommend the 3-mile rule for lightning: If the thunder boom follows the flash in less than 15 seconds, drop the mast and scram. In other cases, it's up to the field crews to judge. In any case, minimal lightning education should be standard.

Jimmy Sena is back at work at KMOL. He said he feels about 95% back to normal, physically. The sound of a door opening can still make him jump. A lightning strike near the KMOL building sent him hiding under his desk one day. Once in a while, he'll walk into the newsroom and forget what he went in there for in the first place. He has occasional tingling and muscle twitching in his legs.

July 2 has changed the newsroom, said Sena. "I was up on the assignment desk and there was lightning outside. I asked if there were any live shots out there. Hollis Grizzard said, ÎYeah, I called Îem off.'"

There is no evidence that training would have circumvented Jimmy Sena's trauma. There is also no evidence to the contrary.

Deborah McAdams is a contributing editor. She can be reached at:

Editor's note: In "The Revolution That Wasn't" (August 2002), station KBFD in Honolulu, HI, was inadvertently named KFBD. We apologize for the