Illinois law requires employers to compensate employees who are injured on the job. This compensation comes in several forms – replacing lost wages if you can’t work and covering 100% of your medical costs. For medical care, you shouldn’t pay anything out of pocket as long as the treatment is reasonable and related to your injury.

The catch is that not all injuries that happen while you are at work count as work injuries under the law. You’re only eligible for compensation if your injury “arises out of” your employment. In plain English, this simply means that your injury has to be caused (at least somewhat) by your job. This is a major topic in Illinois workers’ compensation law, and new cases come out all the time clarifying – or attempting to clarify – what constitutes a work injury.

All the details surrounding an injury matter when determining whether an injury is work related. In some cases, it’s very clear that the job caused the injury. If you are hurt by a piece of machinery while operating that machinery in order to do your job, then that injury most certainly arose out of your employment.

The less clear cases are those in which the employee is hurt doing something more generic, like going up or down the stairs. They get hurt at work but doing something that is not specific to their job. Instead, they were doing something that the general public does on regular basis. These cases can go either way, depending on the details. The outcome often hinges on the idea of risk.

The law in Illinois looks at whether your employment created an increased risk of that injury. If something in your employment made going down the stairs more risky – increased your risk of falling – then you’re more likely to get benefits to help with that injury. Running down the stairs in an urgent work-related situation (maybe a nurse helping a patient in distress) is a good example. The risk is no longer neutral, but rather work-related because it’s a nurse’s job to respond quickly to a patient in pain or one that is facing a life-threatening situation.

On the other hand, simply going down a flight of stairs, without anything increasing the risk of a fall, isn’t a strong case for workers’ compensation. In many of these cases, an employee doesn’t even know why they got hurt. They simply suffered an unexplained fall. The facts often show that they were in good health, they weren’t in a hurry or carrying anything, and many were even holding the handrail. They just fell for no apparent reason. In these cases, an arbitrator or judge is likely to rule that there was no increased risk and therefore the injury is not technically a work injury. It’s not “compensable.”

Even in the last example though, we need a full picture of your job duties to tell you if there’s a claim or not.  If you were walking down the stairs and your knee popped, that is usually not a case.  But if you have to go up and down the stairs 20 times a day, that is a lot more than the normal person does, so a good argument could be made that you were at an increased risk of injury because your job duties are unique.

One thing to take away from these cases, if you are an employee who suffers a work injury, is try to remember as many details as you can right away. Write down everything you remember as soon as you can. Maybe the floor was wet, or your boss had just called you into an urgent meeting and you were in a hurry. Maybe you were carrying something precarious. You never know what might matter and which facts will tip the scale toward your injury being categorized as a work injury.