Safety and OSHA News

Injured after falling off chair: Can he get workers’ comp?

A clerk dropped a pen and reached over from his chair to pick it up. The chair went out from under him, and he injured his wrist in a fall. Did a court award him workers’ comp benefits? 

Terry Noonan had worked for the City of Chicago as a truck driver. He injured his back and due to his medical restrictions was working at a desk job as a clerk filling out paperwork.

While working as a clerk, he fell off his chair while trying to pick up a pen. “Just as I was maybe two inches or an inch from picking the pen up off the floor, the chair went out from underneath me. I stuck my right hand out to brace my fall,” Noonan had testified.

Noonan had to have surgery on his right wrist. He applied for workers’ comp for this injury. The City denied his claim.

An arbitrator found Noonan didn’t prove his wrist injury arose out of his employment, saying he “failed to prove that the simple act of sitting in a rolling chair and reaching for a pen exposed him to an increased risk of injury that was beyond what members of the general public are regularly exposed to.”

The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission affirmed the arbitrator’s decision as did a circuit court. Recently, an appellate court issued its decision in the case.

Neutral risk

Noonan challenged the Commission’s finding that he failed to show his injury arose out of his employment.

In Illinois, for an injury to arise out of employment, the risk must be “peculiar to the work” or something “the employee is exposed to [at] a greater degree than the general public.”

Illinois courts sort risk into three categories:

  1. those distinctly associated with employment
  2. those that are personal to the employee, and
  3. neutral risks that do not have any particular employment or personal characteristics and are only compensable where the employee was exposed to the risk to a greater degree than the general public.

The appellate court found Noonan’s case to involve a neutral risk. It also found he wasn’t at a greater risk than the general public.

“Although claimant was at work, the act he was performing when injured – reaching for a dropped item while sitting in a chair – was not one he was instructed to perform or had a duty to perform,” the court wrote. “We find the risk of falling from a chair while reaching to the floor is one which claimant would have been equally exposed to apart from his work for the employer.”

The court noted there was no evidence presented that the chair was defective. Also, the risk posed from reaching for a pen was no greater than if Noonan had been reaching for any other object.

In two previous Illinois cases, employees filed workers’ comp claims for back injuries they suffered while turning around in their chair at work. The court noted neither of those workers received comp benefits for their injuries either, even though sitting in a chair was part of their job.

The court upheld the Commission’s denial of Noonan’s workers’ comp claim.

Note: The court specifically pointed out that there was no report of a defect with the chair Noonan was sitting in. The inference: Had a defective chair factored into this case, the result could have been different. Why? Because the user of a defective chair would be at a greater risk than the general public. Not a bad reason to replace wobbly or otherwise defective chairs in the workplace.

(Terry Noonan v. City of Chicago, Appellate Court of Illinois First District, No. 1-15-2300WC, 10/21/16)

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