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Recent amendment to Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Act creates rebuttable presumption for PTSD claims of emergency service workers

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A recent “hot topic” in occupational health and safety circles has been psychological health and safety in the workplace. From the workplace violence and harassment provisions that have been added to occupational health and safety legislation across the country, to the introduction of the Canadian Standards Association’s guideline Z1003 (Psychological health and safety in the workplace – Prevention, promotion, and guidance to staged implementation), legislators and policy-makers appear to be to increasingly prioritizing the mental (as well as the physical) well-being of workers.

Traditionally, a worker who suffered from mental trauma in the workplace would be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits, only if (s)he could satisfy the adjudicative authority that the mental trauma arose from an event that: (i) arose out of and in the course of the employment; (ii) was clearly and precisely identifiable; (iii) was objectively traumatic; and (iv) was unexpected in the normal or daily course of the worker’s employment or work environment. Examples of situations that would satisfy this test may include a criminal act, harassment, a horrific accident, and/or actual or threatened death or serious harm against the worker, a co-worker, a worker’s family member or others.

However, recent amendments to Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Act have loosened the eligibility criteria for mental stress claims, and for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder claims in particular, for emergency service workers in that province. Effective December 10, 2012, section 24(2) of the Act creates the rebuttable presumption that PTSD claims of emergency medical technicians, firefighters, peace officers and police officers arise out of and occur during the course of the their employment, in response to traumatic events to which they have been exposed.

For the purposes of defining PTSD, the Act references the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

This amendment is likely to increase the accessibility of workers’ compensation benefits to emergency service workers suffering from PTSD, while also increasing the accident claim costs of employers in the emergency services industry in Alberta. While Alberta is the first (and, so far, the only) Canadian province to introduce such language into its workers’ compensation legislation, its efforts have been cited by other governments struggling to manage PTSD claims of emergency service workers; and it is possible that other jurisdictions will follow Alberta’s lead.

With the increased prioritization of mental health in the workplace, employers should be sensitive to the needs of employees with mental health issues, and should be mindful of their duty to accommodate the employee’s mental health issues to the point of undue hardship. When the mental illness leads to a workers’ compensation claim, employers should be diligent in proactively investigating the alleged incident, with the goals of reducing incidents and injuries in the workplace and minimizing workers’ compensation claim costs. Employers should then participate actively in the claims adjudication process to ensure that their interests are communicated to and considered by the adjudicator.

Ryan D. Campbell