Public Safety Officers Can Protect Themselves by Working Out Wisely
It is imperative for public safety officers to sustain a fitness level to effectively get the job done while simultaneously keeping out of harm's way. Sustaining such a degree of fitness requires diligence, discipline and dedication. But, there is a gray area here: what are deemed recreational activities and what constitutes keeping physically fit for the job? The employer's expectation of what is necessary to maintain the required level of fitness and the employee's perception of what is required often differ. Therein lies the rub.
There are some reported Workers' Compensation cases regarding this very issue that have involved officers doing the following while not on duty:
- Running on a school track.
- Running on vacation.
- Practicing a standing long jump.
- Hiking with a pet.
- Doing jumping jacks at home.
Let's take this last scenario as an example. Sheriff Daniel Young's off-duty exercise regimen included jumping jacks. One day while performing such calisthenics, Young injured his left knee. A Workers' Compensation Judge ruled in favor of Young's injury being work-related because the officer believed the Sheriff's Department expected him to exercise in order to remain physically fit for work. The Workers' Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) overturned the Judge's ruling, and the case went to the California Appeals Court which ruled in his favor.
Upon review, the Appeals Court referred, in part, to California Labor Code 3600, which outlines when athletic activity resulting in an injury will be determined to be work related:
"Where the injury does not arise out of voluntary participation in any off-duty recreational, social, or athletic activity not constituting part of the employee's work-related duties, except where these activities are a reasonable expectancy of, or are expressly or impliedly required by, the employment."
Each case is different, but when it came to Sheriff Young, the Court felt that there was a connection between the employer's expectations and/or requirements for maintaining physical fitness and the off-duty activity undertaken by the officer. In essence, jumping jacks may be seen as reasonable, whereas another activity, such as participating in a 10K race, may not.
"The Court's ruling doesn't necessarily increase the liability on the part of law enforcement departments," says Steve Scardino, a workers' compensation partner at the law firm of Gordon, Edelstein, Krepack, Grant, Felton & Goldstein, LLP. "Many departments are increasingly designating what are and what are not approved activities for maintaining physical fitness.
"But, there is another factor to consider for those in public safety. Officers who have sustained an on-the-job injury, and are still compelled to try to stay physically fit, must understand that they will be under a great deal of scrutiny. Although they may feel obliged to work out to stay fit, it is recommended that they make sure their doctor understands and approves of those physical activities. We have seen cases where a department has questioned officers' ability to work in light of their ability to do physical activities. It is imperative that your doctor concur with your workout regimen during the recovery period from a work injury.
"It's about balancing the need for fitness with the need for healing."
GEK is proud to represent public safety officers who get hurt on or off the job. If you would like to find out about your legal options, please call us at 213-739-7000 or click here.