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Solar eclipse creates employee safety risks

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Employers planning to host solar eclipse viewing parties should be aware of employee safety and workers compensation concerns.

On Aug. 21, a total solar eclipse will take place and will be visible from cities including Portland, Oregon; Denver; Kansas City, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta; and Charlotte, North Carolina. This is the first time a total eclipse has been visible in the United States since 1979.

The rarity of this occurrence will likely draw widespread interest and employers have planned solar eclipse viewing parties.

“Many employers are having eclipse watching parties. I have even recently heard about a very large employer that is in the path (of the eclipse that is) closing its headquarters for the day as a celebration of this rare cosmic event,” Shirley Lerner, Minneapolis, Minnesota-based shareholder and attorney at Littler Mendelson P.C., said Monday in an emailed statement.

With solar eclipse viewing parties, employers should be aware of the safety guidelines provided by NASA. “An employer should provide ISO 12312-2 compliant viewing glasses if they are encouraging or hosting a viewing party,” Amy K. Harper, Journey to Safety Excellence & Workplace Strategy Director at the National Safety Council based in Itasca, Illinois, said Thursday in an emailed statement.

Ms. Harper points to NASA’s safety guidelines as a navigation tool for employers. People attending a viewing party should not look directly at the sun, nor look at the sun through a camera, binoculars, telescope or other optical devices. Using solar filters with those devices can cause eye injuries, according to NASA.

If injuries do occur at an employer-sponsored solar eclipse viewing party, employees may be covered under workers comp, according to experts.  

“There have been situations where company-sponsored on-site social activities have led to workers compensation claims,” Ms. Lerner said. “Courts may find workers compensation liability where the employee is reasonably fulfilling the duties of the employment or engaged in doing something incidental to the employment. For this reason, any eclipse watching event should be made clearly voluntary.”

Employers should be aware of how official and company sponsored the event is, according to experts.

“One of the issues is, to what extent do the employees feel that there is some degree of compulsion to attend,” said Merton Marks, Phoenix-based attorney for Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani L.L.P.

“It would either be workers comp or not covered by workers comp. The issue is: is this a company event? If the employer throws the party, pays for the food, tells the employees to come, there's some degree of compulsion to go because it is part of the employment, then it is a work-related item. You see this often in Christmas party cases,” Mr. Marks said.

“A company event that is not required by the employer would not normally fall under workers compensation,” Ms. Lerner said. “So, if the employer plans an eclipse watching event, the employer should make it clear this is not a required activity and is not intended as compensation to the employee.”

Employers should make their expectations clear before the event takes place, Ms. Lerner said. “Will they allow employees to leave the premises or just view from a window? For how long? If employees are absent without a legitimate excuse, what will happen?” she said.