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No Workers' Compensation for work-related stress in Nova Scotia

Courts may bring much-needed change, advocate believes

by Robert Devet

Workers, such as firemen, paramedics but also secretaries bullied by their manager, suffer from work-related stress as the result of a build-up of multiple traumatic events over a long time.  But Workers' Compensation excludes work-related stress, unless it can be attributed to one single event.  This needs to change, many believe, and the courts may well agree. Photo RTD Photography
Workers, such as firemen, paramedics but also secretaries bullied by their manager, suffer from work-related stress as the result of a build-up of multiple traumatic events over a long time. But Workers' Compensation excludes work-related stress, unless it can be attributed to one single event. This needs to change, many believe, and the courts may well agree. Photo RTD Photography

K'JIPUKTUK, HALIFAX - Sometimes post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) is caused by a single major event. Very often though it is the result of a slow build-up of a series of events over many years.

Frequently exposure to such traumatic events is work-related. Imagine an ambulance worker who after seeing horrific accidents for ten years finally reaches the breaking point. Or a secretary who succumbs to PTSD after being subjected to relentless bullying for many years.

“I have come through it, but I still think about many calls that were extremely traumatic,” says Dave Wilson, a NDP MLA who worked as a paramedic for nine years prior to his election. “Especially young kids that passed away. I can still see the colour of their eyes and the colour of their hair.”

“I think about my colleagues who I went to school with in the mid-nineties and who are probably still working as medics,” says Wilson. They have been working for 20 years now, and I couldn't imagine how they are dealing with it.”

Yet in Nova Scotia the Workers' Compensation Act goes out of its way to exclude stress “other than an acute reaction to a traumatic event.”

In other words, if you suffer from PTSD that's work-related but results from a cumulative series of events than don't look for compensation from the Workers Compensation Board.

This October Wilson introduced a bill to amend the Workers' Compensation Act to specifically include PTSD as an occupational disease for firefighters, police officers, registered nurses, paramedics and other emergency responders.

His bill never made it beyond second reading.

But the courts may well accomplish what Wilson couldn't. And not just for first responders, but for anybody who suffers from workplace-related stress.

That at least is what Jessie Parkinson believes. Parkinson works for the Office of the Worker Counsellor, an organization that offers assistance, advise and education to injured workers.

Parkinson points to a recent decision in Ontario where an Appeals Tribunal struck down the stress exclusion as contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A similar case will be heard by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal in December.

Parkinson calls the Nova Scotia case a game changer and believes that, as in Ontario, when all is said and done the judge will find that the Nova Scotia legislation discriminates against a group of persons on the basis of the way they become ill.

This in turn will eventually force a change in legislation to accommodate all the sufferers from work-related stress who are now excluded.

Parkinson thinks such a change is overdue.

“We believe compensation should be available for everybody,” says Parkinson. “If you suffer from stress as a result of the kind of work you do than you are entitled to be considered for compensation.”

It is telling that the Ontario case was related to bullying, Parkinson believes.

“Unions, in particular the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) have done a lot of work around bullying, but the next step is to ask how we compensate if it happens,” she says.

On Saturday November 8th the Office of The Worker Counsellor is hosting a one-day symposium on issues around compensation for work-related stress, including those touched upon in this article. Late registration has been extended.

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert


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