It wasn’t so long ago that workers in certain industries were forced to work long hours without breaks for water, food, or using the bathroom. Thankfully, those days are behind most of us. Now, thanks to employee-friendly labor laws, break times are mandated for hourly workers, and salaried workers in search of a less stressful workday are more likely to take lunch and stretch breaks than they were a few years ago.
So what happens if you are on one of these breaks when you fall down and get hurt? Would you still be covered by workers’ comp even if you were off the clock? Employers and MCOs might try to argue that you are not covered because you were not performing job-specific duties, but Ohio case law would beg to differ—at least in certain specific situations.
What Is the Personal Comfort Doctrine?
Covering injuries that occur during a break is addressed in what’s known as the personal comfort doctrine. This doctrine says that injuries sustained while engaging in activities related to the employee’s personal comfort are considered to have occurred within the course of employment. In other words, taking a break to eat, drink, or use the restroom should be considered job-related for the purpose of workers’ comp. Ohio courts have found that employee conduct during reasonable breaks is “appropriate and helpful to the accomplishment of the purpose of the employment” and, therefore, injuries sustained during a break should be covered.
The personal comfort doctrine clearly applies to breaks that occur on the employer’s premises. Having lunch in a break room, taking a walk on company property, using company restrooms, or even eating in your car in a company-owned parking lot all fall under the personal comfort doctrine. However, in some situations, the doctrine could also be applied to an off-site lunch break.
How Employers Might Try to Control the Situation
As we know, when companies are hit in the pocketbook, they make changes to save money. Where personal comfort is concerned, this is generally a good thing. Employers know that they will be liable for workers’ comp if you are injured while on break, so they might take measures to ensure that break times are less hazardous by providing conveniently located bathrooms, offering snacks and even meals on the premises, creating relaxing indoor and outdoor areas for breaks, and more.
They might also have less friendly policies to protect themselves, such as:
- Prohibiting smoking. A lot of older Ohio case law in the area of personal comfort focuses on smoke breaks, and before Ohio’s Smoke-Free Workplace Act was implemented in 2006, taking a break to smoke was common. Under the law, smoking is not permitted inside places of employment but does allow for smoking outside buildings. Your employer, however, has the right to ban smoking anywhere on their property, forcing you to leave the workplace to smoke. In most cases, if you are injured while on a smoke break off company property, your employer can deny worker’s comp coverage.
- Establishing strict rules. Your employer might have policies regarding departure from company property during the workday, including clear statements about what is considered an employment activity and what is not. For example, your employee handbook could state that leaving the workplace for any non-work-related reason removes you from the course of employment. Whether this stands up in court remains to be seen, but it’s important to understand your company’s policies.
If an employer pushes back on a workers’ comp claim that you believe is legitimate, the sooner you talk to a workers’ comp attorney, the easier it will be to resolve the case.
Potential Work-From-Home Exceptions to the Personal Comfort Doctrine
Just because you work from home, that doesn’t mean you don’t need breaks. However, under the Ohio law that went into effect in September of 2022, it seems like remote workers will not be covered by the personal comfort doctrine. The law specifically states that an activity must be for the exclusive benefit of the employer in order for an injury that occurred during the activity to be covered. Is getting up to go to the bathroom exclusively for your employer’s benefit? If you trip and fall on the way, would your injury be covered? We don’t have the case law yet to know for sure. If this happens to you, you would be smart to contact a lawyer.