Smoke Breaks & The Personal Comfort Rule

Accidents that happen at work while performing your job duties will likely entitle you to workers’ compensation benefits for your injuries. But accidents that take place while on a break from work, may require a closer look. 

During the course of a typical work day, there are times that workers need to attend to personal needs that are not necessarily prescribed by their job duties. These acts of “personal comfort” include using the bathroom, eating, and cooling off in the heat. Though these activities may not be work per se, they have been considered to be a necessary part of performing work duties, such that accidents that occur during these times can be considered to still be in the course of employment.

Workers using the restroom or eating lunch, are meeting personal demands which are in the interest of their employer to perform. As long as the worker is carrying out those activities in a reasonable manner and not in an unnecessarily dangerous manner, the employment chain will not necessarily be broken, just because the activity taking place does not present like work, in the classic sense.


Though the personal comfort activities are considered to be in the course of employment, they need also to arise out of the employment, so that they can be compensable work-related injuries. It is relevant to look at where the activity took place, what limitations existed, and how specific to the employment the risk was—as opposed to a risk that the general public would be exposed to. Where, for example, the company has a specific break room for employee breaks, or where there is one hallway or staircase that the employee can use to get to the required personal comfort location, it is more likely for an accident to be connected to employment in these locations. 


A recent Illinois Workers’ Compensation case illustrates these distinctions in compensating break-time accidents. The case involved a woman who was very busy at work, and took a break to smoke a cigarette. The company had a designated smoking area on the floor below her usual work space. There was only one stairway which connected her office area to the smoking area, and the general public did not have access to these areas. The worker fell down the stairs while hurrying to the smoking area and was injured.


The act of smoking was considered to be a personal comfort act, which was connected to her employment.   She was not doing anything unreasonable or dangerous in walking down the stairs to get to her break. Further, the company had control over this route, by designating one smoking area, with one stairway. Because the stairway was not open to the general public, the risk of falling on those stairs was greater for the employees.


For these reasons, the worker was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for her injury. This case exemplifies the types of scenarios where workers are not specifically performing job duties, but nonetheless can still be on the job for the purpose of being entitled to benefits.

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