Thursday, November 6, 2014

High Flying Work Comp Claim

When a space ship falls out of the sky and there's a surviving test pilot, and one that incurs fatal injuries, how does the workers' compensation system cope?

Are test pilots treated differently than us regular folks? Are the medical bills of the survivor strictly scrutinized for appropriate charges? Are medical decisions rendered quickly, or will there be rounds of utilization review and independent review?

It's now been preliminarily determined by the National Transportation Safety Board that SpaceShipTwo's structural failure was induced by pilot error - the swinging boom that was used to slow the spacecraft for reentry into the atmosphere was unlocked and initiated prematurely, presumably accidentally, by the right seat pilot.

The NTSB believes that mission copilot Michael Alsbury, 39, who died in the crash and was sitting in the right seat of SpaceShipTwo, prematurely flipped a switch that unlocked the boom while the craft was still traveling in excess of Mach 1.3, or 1.3 times the speed of sound.

The experimental rocket plane broke up over the Mojave Desert moments after that action. Mission pilot Peter Siebold, 43, parachuted out of the aircraft and suffered serious injuries. Investigators have not yet been able to interview Siebold, who was discharged from Antelope Valley Hospital Monday according to news reports.

Test pilot ranks high in the occupational risk category for obvious reasons - surviving a plane crash is rare.

Siebold bailed out at 50,000 feet which is nearly twice as high as Mount Everest. At that altitude there is essentially no oxygen, and the ambient air temperature is about minus 70 degrees fahrenheit. The pilots did not wear pressure suits, because the cabin of SpaceShipTwo was pressurized.
This is 6641M, not SpaceShipTwo

That Siebold had enough wits about him to get out of the craft at over 600 miles per hour, maintain sufficient situational awareness to be able to deploy his parachute at a safe altitude and speed, and in fact be able to do so despite the extreme cold, is nothing short of miraculous.

Now the recovery starts. Undoubtedly there will be long term medical consequences and potential disability. Will his condition prevent Siebold from flying again professionally? And if it doesn't will there be a position for him at his employer, Scaled Composites (a division now of Northrop Grumman Corp.)?

I don't know how Northrup's workers' compensation program is set up - the company is a global corporation with operations in many different countries, let alone states. Someone out there likely knows how the company structures its work comp compliance. But there does at least appear to be some sort of wage differential program to make up for the capitation of benefits provided by work comp.

I don't have any answers. I don't really know what will happen with Siebold, or whether the family of his copilot, Alsbury, will receive any compensation above the statutory limits for death benefits (I would assume there was a supplemental life insurance policy...).

I suspect however that, from a claims perspective, the cases of Alsbury and Siebold will be handled quite efficiently and expertly - this is after all a high profile situation. But more importantly the culture of space exploration encompasses calculated risk and a close-knit relationship between all involved in a project like SpaceShipTwo.

My guess is that Siebold will be flying again, professionally, and probably for his employer - test pilots are of that rare psychological makeup that perseveres against the most challenging situations; it's more than training, it's genetic. And Siebold has a huge amount of knowledge about the plane and the project that his employer is going to want to preserve.

A work injury recovery system, whether called workers' compensation or otherwise, requires the cooperation and coordination of many different elements to deliver as successful an outcome as possible.

The primary element is the attitude of the employer and the attitude of the injured worker. When their interests are aligned surprising things can happen.

Siebold has already demonstrated his attitude - surviving the near space breakup of an aircraft is demonstrative of his mindset.

The culture of Scaled Composites, a company that operates at the fringes of space itself and overcomes huge risks every day is also demonstrative of a mindset I suspect that is in alignment with Siebold's.

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