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Drones create safety opportunities, raise privacy concerns

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CHICAGO — The rising use of drones presents new opportunities to reduce workplace accidents, but a state-by-state regulatory system has created an uncertain terrain in terms of property and privacy rights, experts say.

Speakers at the 2017 Workers Compensation conference sponsored by the Claims and Litigation Management Alliance and Business Insurance Thursday in Chicago discussed practical ways that drones can be used to make the workplace safer and what legal requirements employers should be aware of.

Drones can be used in workers comp to reduce risks and injuries and enhance loss control, experts say.

“If you think about, it there are lots of jobs where you need to get your two feet off the ground at a high level of altitude and falls are a huge loss, whether there is a death that occurs or a serious injury,” said Jeffrey Hertrich, Lansing, Michigan-based deputy general counsel, corporate practice at insurance solutions provider AF Group. “Somebody's got to climb on the roof and inspect that scaffolding that fell. These are issues that can be mitigated by drones.”  

Drones can be used to inspect scaffolding before sending a person to a roof or other elevated surface.

“A lot times you fly a drone up, you look at joints in scaffolding to make sure all of the pins are in place and that it's fastened correctly. That little 5-minute expedition can prevent a huge loss or even a death,” Mr. Hertrich said, noting that falls are the No. 1 cause of death in the construction industry and the No. 3 cause of death across all industries.

Falls were responsible for 364 out of 937, or 38.8%, total deaths in construction in calendar year 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The construction sector was responsible for 21.4% of all worker fatalities in that year.

Drones can also be used by safety managers to ensure that workers are following safety protocols, especially in cases where managers are responsible for more than one job site.

An increase in the use of drones is being seen across various industries, experts say.  

“They are no longer a simple gift that you see under the Christmas tree for your child ... They are exploding in the commercial arena no matter what the industry is,” said Martin Driggers, Hartsville, South Carolina-based managing shareholder of Sweeny, Wingate & Barrow's Pee Dee region, a seven-county area in northeastern South Carolina. “That's why the law has really had to catch up to uses that were already in place in the real world.”

On Aug. 29, 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration enacted Part 107, which instituted new rules in terms of operational limitations, necessary certifications and aircraft requirements for commercial unmanned aircraft systems. Some of the key rules for operating UAS or drones are that they can only be operated in daylight, the maximum flying altitude is 400 feet, and that they weigh 55 pounds or less.

While the FAA has provided federal regulation for commercial drone use, experts say that there are still other legal matters to consider, mainly property rights and privacy.

“You may have read about this in the news, people having drones come over their backyard fence, some getting shot down, and people taking steps to prevent that,” Mr. Driggers said, noting that federal law does not address these issues.

“It goes to state and even local authorities, so there is a balancing test depending on where you live that will determine which one of those apply,” he said.

As of January, 32 states had enacted some form of unmanned aircraft system legislation that addresses privacy rights or trespassing, while other states have task forces currently studying the issues and trying to write recommendations.

“The basic questions you're left with is: When does a drone flight over private property constitute nuisance or trespassing? That's something that's going to be unique to each state that you are in,” Mr. Driggers said.