Workers’ compensation and the ‘personal comfort’ doctrine
INJURED DURING A WORK BREAK? WHAT IF YOU WORK REMOTELY?
Workers’ comp covers you for any work-related accident or injury. But what about injuries while getting coffee or snacks? What about your lunch hour? If you weren’t technically working, can you claim a work injury?
Maryland courts have recognized the “personal comfort doctrine” in workers’ compensation. When you are at work, there is a benefit — to you and the employer — in taking mental breaks, using the restroom and getting refreshments. But there are gray areas and untested scenarios relating to the allowance for personal comfort. Your employer may challenge a work injury claim that stems from a work break.
THE PERSONAL COMFORT DOCTRINE EXPLAINED
Compensation awarded under the personal comfort doctrine is typically related to injuries incurred on break time. An employee slips on a freshly washed floor on the way to the restroom or takes a fall on the stairs en route to get a cup of coffee. The employee is considered to be engaging in actions that provide personal comfort. However, these occur within the scope of actual work activities. Such actions are viewed as a standard part of employment. The employer likely benefits too, because taking breaks and engaging in activities such as eating lunch or having a snack will help to boost employee productivity.
AT WORK IS ON DUTY
The term “personal comfort doctrine” is not widely known, but the principle of break period injuries that occur on work premises is universally recognized. You are considered on duty during your normal work hours. Employees are entitled to meal and rest breaks under the law, and are covered by workers’ compensation during that down time.
Some employers provide a paid lunch break, usually taken on the premises. Other employers have employees clock out and allow them to leave the premises. This distinction may come into play if the injury occurs over the lunch hour.
If you are injured on the grounds — a walk for exercise, a fall in the parking lot, a slip on the stairs — you are typically covered. The law is less clear when personal comfort injuries occur off-site. Are you covered while crossing the street to grab a sandwich? What if you have a car accident while picking up a cake for a co-worker’s party? The Maryland Workers Compensation Commission or state courts might ultimately be called upon to decide.
PERSONAL COMFORT AND THE HOME OFFICE
Courts in other states have extended the personal comfort doctrine to those who work remotely. For example,a company employee who is required to maintain a home office falls on the way downstairs to get a snack during normal work hours. He or she should be eligible for workers’ compensation, just as if this kind of accident had taken place in a standard office environment. But employers may challenge whether a remote employee’s injury was actually job-related.
YOU DESERVE A BREAK TODAY
An employee who sustains an injury is assumed eligible for compensation if the injury occurred within the course of work activities, including restroom breaks, smoking breaks, office parties and trips to the vending machine.
But because the personal comfort doctrine is subject to legal interpretation, any questions you might have about a specific scenario are best brought to an attorney experienced with workers’ compensation law.