Highlights of Noteworthy Decisions

Decision 698 14
R. McCutcheon - D. Purdy - J. Crocker
  • Stress, mental
  • Telephone operator
  • Board Directives and Guidelines (stress, mental) (traumatic event)
  • Board Directives and Guidelines (stress, mental) (cumulative trauma)
  • Stress, mental (effect of employment decisions)
  • Board Directives and Guidelines (stress, mental) (unexpected event)

A 911 operator appealed a decision of the Appeals Resolution Officer denying entitlement for post-traumatic stress disability and denying ongoing entitlement for organic impairment under a separate claim.

On the evidence, the worker did not have ongoing entitlement for the organic impairment.
The worker related her PTSD to numerous traumatic calls and incidents and, in particular, to two incidents. The first incident was in 2008, when the worker took a call from a plainclothes police officer concerning plainclothes officer who were running with firearms. This call was taken over by a staff sergeant at the scene. There was danger in the inability to make sure that uniformed officers in the area were aware of the plainclothes officers so that they would not mistake the plainclothes officers for suspects. The worker found the incident unusually stressful because she had no control over the situation once the sergeant took over the call.
The second incident was in 2009 when there was a shooting and it was unclear whether officers were hurt.
The Board focused on the worker's annoyance with the staff sergeant in the 2008 incident. However, the Panel found that this was not a matter of an employment decision, which would be excluded from benefits under s. 13(5) of the WSIA. It was not the worker's irritation with the staff sergeant that led to her condition. Rather, it was the potential danger to the officers and the interference with the ability to do her job and provide the necessary information to ensure the safety of the officers.
Board policy on traumatic mental stress provides entitlement for workers who hear the traumatic event first hand through direct contact, which includes speaking on the radio or telephone. This provision applies to 911 operators.
Some Tribunal decisions have found that traumatic events must be unusual or unexpected in the worker's particular line of work. Other decisions have found that the proper application of the average worker test should be by reference to an average worker in the general labour pool rather than an average worker doing the same kind of work as the claimant. The Panel preferred the latter approach and found that approach to be consistent with the cumulative effect provision in the Board policy. The cumulative effect provision applies to workers who, due to the nature of their occupation, may be exposed to multiple sudden and unexpected traumatic events. The policy does not suggest that the traumatic events experienced by the workers are subject to a higher standard but, rather, sets the terms for such entitlement.
Workers involved in emergency responder occupations, by the very nature of their work, are more likely to be exposed to events that meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. The evolution of the diagnosis of PTSD began with shell shock experienced by combat soldiers. Their experiences were traumatic but not unexpected in war. It would not make sense to penalize workers whose jobs, by their very nature, entail exposure to objectively traumatic events. The enactment of s. 13(4) and (5) of the WSIA was meant to limit entitlement to mental stress that arises out of and in the course of employment. Limiting the scope of the interpretation with respect to emergency responders would not give effect to that intention.
In determining whether events were unexpected, the Panel found that the term should not be construed strictly in this context. In this case, the Panel was satisfied that the incident in 2008 was unexpected in that the worker experienced interference in her ability to perform her job and provide the needed assistance to the officers at the scene.
The Panel concluded that the worker had entitlement for traumatic mental stress.
The appeal was allowed in part.