Does workers’ compensation in SC cover injuries while on break?
If all on-the-job injuries are covered by workers’ compensation insurance, shouldn’t that also apply to injuries sustained while taking an ordinary break during work hours? What if you slip and fall while taking a break?
If you are on break and your clothing is accidentally set on fire by your cigarette lighter, is that covered by workers’ compensation? What if you are on the clock, taking a fifteen-minute break, and your pistol accidentally discharges while you are showing it to a coworker?
In most cases, accidents that happen while on break will be covered under what is called “the personal comfort doctrine.” Some injuries while on break may not be covered, however, if they have no “logical causal correlation” to your employment.
Injuries While on Break May be Covered Under the Personal Comfort Doctrine
The SC Supreme Court has held that an accidental injury that happens during a routine work break is covered by workers’ compensation under the “personal comfort doctrine:”
Such acts as are necessary to the life, comfort, and convenience of the servant while at work, though strictly personal to himself, and not acts of service, are incidental to the service, and injury sustained in the performance thereof is deemed to have arisen out of the employment. A man must breathe and occasionally drink water while at work. In these and other conceivable instances he ministers unto himself, but in a remote sense these acts contribute to the furtherance of his work. . . . That such acts will be done in the course of employment is necessarily contemplated, and they are inevitable incidents. Such dangers as attend them, therefore, are incident dangers. At the same time injuries occasioned by them are accidents resulting from the employment.
Workers’ compensation covers accidental injuries “arising out of and in the course of employment,” which includes accidental injuries that happen while on break.
For example, in Mack v. Branch No. 12, Post Exchange, Fort Jackson, 207 S.C. 258, 35 S.E.2d 838 (1945), the SC Supreme Court held that an employee was entitled to compensation when his pant leg caught fire from spilled lighter fluid:
In Mack, we held the employee was entitled to compensation resulting from injuries suffered during a smoke break, when his pant leg caught fire after cigarette lighter fluid spilled on it.
The employee was on a smoke break and, although spilled lighter fluid may not have been a risk related to his employment, it was a risk related to smoke breaks – “the injuries which occurred were occasioned by the dangers that attended to the smoke breaks, e.g., in Mack, the very fact of smoking was the attendant danger.”
Of course, Mack was decided in 1945 – would the SC Supreme Court decide the case the same way today? Times have changed, “smoke breaks” are no longer universally accepted, and many employers are now prohibiting their employees from smoking…
In another example, in McCoy v. Easley Cotton Mills, 218 S.C. 350, 62 S.E.2d 772 (1950), the SC Supreme Court held that an employee was entitled to compensation when he was injured while on break by a piece of copper piping held by a coworker:
Similarly, in McCoy v. Easley Cotton Mills, 218 S.C. 350, 62 S.E.2d 772 (1950), we held an employee on a smoke break who was injured after turning and accidentally walking into a piece of copper piping held by a co-employee was entitled to compensation. The copper piping was used in the air conditioning of the mill, and the employees had, immediately prior to the accident, been discussing using the piping in order to make a travis key, which was used by the claimant in his employment as a doffer.
In Mack, the injury was related to smoking – which, at least in 1945, was related to the “life, comfort, and convenience of the servant while at work.”
In McCoy, the injury was directly related to the employment – sustained from a piece of copper piping that was directly related to the employee’s work duties.
What if an employee is injured on break by something unrelated to either their work duties or the “life, comfort, and convenience” of the employee while on break?
Injuries While on Break are Not Covered if They Aren’t Related to the Employment
In Dukes v. Rural Metro Corp., the SC Supreme Court found that an accidental gunshot wound sustained while on break is not covered by workers’ compensation when it is not related to the worker’s job duties:
While working as a paramedic for Rural Metro, Richard Dukes (“Dukes”) and his co-worker took a smoke break. Dukes did not need to “clock-out” for such breaks and received compensation for the breaks. While on break, Dukes’ co-worker went to her car and returned with the pistol she had recently acquired to bring back and show Dukes. She handed the pistol to Dukes, who examined it and gave it back to her. The gun then accidentally discharged, shooting Dukes in his upper thigh.
The injury was not covered “because there was no nexus connecting his job as a paramedic to his colleague’s handgun that they were examining during a smoke break.” The Court cites Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law for the proposition that workers’ compensation should cover work breaks, bathroom breaks, and even smoking-related injuries on break, but not accidental gunshot wounds:
The purpose of the personal comfort doctrine is to allow employees to attend to their biological personal requirements. People need to take breaks, go to the bathroom, even smoke a cigarette. Do employees need, however, to play with guns? Allowing an employee to go to the bathroom, to walk outside to clear his or her head, or to take other short breaks is good for the employer’s business. Injuries sustained during those activities should be compensable. Injuries sustained while handling a privately owned pistol should not. Allowing the employment to be expanded so as to include the type of activity found in Dukes seems to go far beyond the original intent of the doctrine.
If an injury happens while you are on a work break and the injury is related to either 1) your job duties or 2) the “life, comfort, and convenience of the servant while at work,” the injury should be covered by workers’ compensation in SC.
If you are injured during a work break, your workers’ compensation attorney at Axelrod and Associates can help you to determine whether you are entitled to compensation, whether any third parties may be liable, file your claim, and represent you at any hearings or appeals that are necessary to get full compensation for your injuries.