Highlights of Noteworthy Decisions

Decision 921 21
K. Iima - M. Falcone - A. Signoroni
  • Stress, mental
  • Stress, mental (chronic)

The worker, a student client services representative at a university, claimed that she sustained a mental stress injury resulting from an incident at work on September 2, 2015 when she was trying to assist a student. After asking for identification the student swore, insulted her, and spat at her.

The worker's representative submitted that entitlement for traumatic mental stress (TMS) ought to be granted on an aggravation basis because the incident aggravated the worker's pre-existing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and caused her to go into an acute episode of psychological distress and that in determining whether the incident was objectively traumatic, the "average worker" test was not appropriate to apply in this instance because it did not take into consideration the worker's history of abuse and PTSD, and therefore, would, in effect, ignore the "thin skull" principle.
In the alternative, the worker's representative submitted that entitlement for chronic mental stress (CMS) on an aggravation basis is in order because the incident on September 2, 2015 constituted a substantial work-related stressor that was the predominant cause of her acute episode aggravating her pre-existing PTSD.
The Panel found that the thin skull principle continued to apply but in the context of mental stress claims, the objective test of what constitutes a traumatic event must first be established; once it is established that the event was "objectively traumatic", the thin skull principle applied to the worker's disabling reaction to the event.
The Panel distinguished Decision No. 1572/12 as it concerned entitlement for a psychotraumatic disability, rather than entitlement under the mental stress provisions and Board policy on TMS. Also that decision found that the precipitating events met the legislative threshold for acute mental stress.
The Panel found that the student became angry and hostile in his speech, but did not threaten the worker or anyone else in the area, verbally or by his actions. As such the incident was not objectively traumatic. In this regard the Panel distinguished Decision No.259/08, noting that in that case the client had spat directly into the worker's face from about four inches away after bombarding her with profane language; and the client was also later arrested and convicted of assault under section 266 of the Criminal Code.
With respect to the claim for chronic mental stress (CMS), the Panel found that with the exception of being spat at, the stressor of dealing with students who were agitated, stressed, and sometimes even angry, was not an uncommon part of the worker's regular duties, did not cause injury to the worker in the past and would not be considered, on its own, to be associated with an injuring process. Furthermore, it found that, although the worker experienced a work-related stressor condition, it was not the main cause of the mental stress injury, but rather, the work-related stressor was overwhelmed and rendered de minimus by the non-work-related stressors, which made a greater contribution and were the predominant cause of the worker's mental stress condition.
The appeal was denied.