Workers’ compensation insurance is required to be carried by most employers, nearly everywhere in the United States. Its intentions are simple: provide employees with monetary compensation in case they’re injured (or worse, killed) while performing their normal responsibilities. 

If and when you’re injured, regardless of how it happened or who is at fault, you’ll have the option to take workers’ comp. However, this isn’t the only option, nor is it the best option in all cases. If you take workers’ comp, you’ll be waiving your right to take legal action against your employer and/or the people responsible for your injury. 

So how are you supposed to tell when it’s appropriate to take workers’ comp and when you should pursue further legal action? 

Step One: Get Medical Attention and Prevent Further Injuries

First, if you’ve been injured on the job, worrying about workers’ comp shouldn’t be your first priority. Instead, it’s important that you get to safety as soon as possible. If there are workplace conditions that could lead to another injury, it’s important that you and/or your supervisor are aware, and take precautions to avoid any further injuries. 

After that, you’ll need to evaluate the severity of your injury. In some cases, you’ll need to go to a hospital or an urgent care facility for some immediate attention; even if you’re not sure how you’re going to be compensated, it’s vital that you take measures to mitigate any further damage to you, personally. In other cases, it may be appropriate to schedule an appointment with your family doctor at your convenience. Either way, it’s important to have medical documentation for your injury—and to make sure you’re getting the best care for your injury as well. 

Step Two: Document the Injury

Once you’ve taken all the steps necessary to get yourself medical attention, it’s in your best interest (and may be required by the rules of your workplace) to document the events leading up to this injury to the best of your ability. Talk to your immediate supervisor and see if there’s a process you’ll need to follow; oftentimes, you’ll need to fill out a paper incident report and talk to other people who have witnessed the incident. Follow these procedures and be as detailed as possible; these might serve as the official versions of the reports later. 

On your own, it’s a good idea to gather further evidence, in case you need it in a future claim. For example, you might take photos or videos of the scene of the incident, or record brief interviews with people who witnessed the accident. If there’s footage of the accident, see if you can get a copy of it

Step Three: Evaluate the Nature of Your Claim

Next, you’ll want to think carefully about the nature and extent of your claim. This is where you’ll determine whether it’s truly appropriate to take legal action, or whether workers’ comp is suitable for your needs. Consider: 

The extent of your injury. You can technically file a workers’ comp claim over a papercut, but it’s probably not worth your time. The smaller your injury is, the less you need to think about taking legal action. 

The negligence involved in your injury. Was anyone directly responsible for the conditions that led to your injury? For example, did a manager or coworker fail to meet safety standards? The more negligence involved, the more important it is to take legal action.

The workers’ comp coverage. It’s also worth looking at what workers’ comp will cover. Generally, the insurance will cover any and all provable medical expenses related to your injury, but it may not cover pain and suffering, or other areas of compensation.

The disposition of your employer. Does your employer seem apologetic or remorseful? Are they taking precautions to make sure this injury doesn’t befall any of your coworkers, now or in the future? If your employer seems dismissive, or if they refuse to take responsibility for the injury, it may be important to take legal action as a way to incentivize their compliance in the future.

Step Four: Talk to a Lawyer

Next, talk to a lawyer—even if you’re not sure whether your injury should motivate further legal action. Most lawyers offer initial consultations for free, so you have nothing to lose by attending this meeting. Your lawyer will be able to review your case, take a look at the evidence you gathered, and give you an accurate projection of what you could expect if you take legal action against your employer. Take their professional advice, and decide how you want to proceed based on that information. 

In many cases, workers’ compensation will not be adequate to cover your injury or hold the people responsible for that injury accountable for improving safety. In those cases, it’s important for you to take legal action against your former employer. If you’re not sure what your chances are or how to proceed, make sure you talk to a qualified lawyer about your options.