Ontario WSIAT strikes down mental stress restrictions

Strict entitlement criteria was in violation of charter rights

Cheryl A. Edwards

Workplace bullying, harassment and violence remain prominent Canadian occupational health and safety issues. Decades of ongoing and increasing events of harassment and violence at work have given rise to significantly expanded workplace safety laws, to the point that most OHS legislation and regulations across Canada now include obligations for employers to protect workers from workplace violence and harassment.

A recent decision by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal (WSIAT) on April 29 has now declared certain provisions under the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (WSIA) related to traumatic mental stress unconstitutional.

The worker in this decision was employed as a nurse with the same hospital for 28 years. During her last 12 years of employment, she was subjected to ongoing harassment by a doctor who worked with her.

The doctor excluded the nurse from conversations in which others were included, embarrassed her in front of others, required her to communicate only through written notes and told her repeatedly to “shoo” or “get out” in the presence of patients. Concerned co-workers brought this mistreatment to the attention of the employer but no action was taken. The doctor’s behaviour continued. The worker eventually brought her concerns directly to a team leader who advised her that her responsibilities would be significantly reduced. The worker was effectively demoted, although her job title and classification stayed the same.

The worker was unable to continue working after these events and was diagnosed with an adjustment disorder exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression, which was attributed to workplace stressors. The worker’s claim for mental stress was denied by both the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) and the WSIB Appeals Branch because the worker did not have “an acute reaction to a sudden and unexpected traumatic event” as required by the WSIA and the WSIB’s traumatic metal stress policy.

The worker appealed the decision claiming the mental stress entitlement provisions of the WSIA violated her rights to equality as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In the tribunal’s April decision it concluded that these provisions violated the charter. It stated a mental disability is similar to a physical disability where the injury can occur gradually over time, not just from a “sudden and unexpected” event.

The tribunal further commented in this decision that the Alberta and Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Boards’ policies regarding mental stress (unlike Ontario’s) “reflect an approach that permits flexibility and consideration of the needs and circumstances of the claimant group.”

For example, in Alberta, mental stress claims are granted in circumstances where the workplace is the “predominate cause” of the condition and the events causing the stress are “excessive or unusual.”

In 2009, in a British Columbia appeal court, a successful charter challenge was first mounted to the British Columbia Workers’ Compensation Board’s mental stress policy. In that case, Plesner v. British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority, the B.C. Court of Appeal held the test for entitlement to workers’ compensation benefits for mental injuries under the B.C. Workers’ Compensation Act violated the equality guarantees in the charter. In short, the B.C. WCB policy required mental stress claimants to meet a higher threshold than claimants suffering physical injuries, and as a result, the court found that this distinction amounted to discrimination on the basis of mental disability.

Eventually, following Plesner, B.C. Workers’ Compensation policies were amended. These compensation policy changes have also been accompanied by significant changes to obligations in B.C. to prevent events of harassment and bullying that could give rise to stress or traumatic mental stress.

Following the April Ontario decision, it is possible the Ontario WSIB may rescind or revise its current policy on traumatic mental stress to reflect those of other provinces. It could also choose not to apply the policy or could even repeal the applicable provisions of the legislation.

While any decision of the tribunal is binding only on the parties to the appeal, it remains to be seen how other panels of the tribunal will address this issue. Reconsideration of numerous appeals determined at board level could occur if similar charter challenges are repeated in these pending cases. Workers must still establish that harassment (or other workplace stressor whether chronic or traumatic) has caused injury that is identifiable, diagnosable, disabling and arose in the course of employment. If the decision is followed in subsequent cases or if changes are made to board policy in Ontario, this decision is likely to significantly expand the circumstances in which a worker’s claim may be allowed due to mental stress.

Most importantly, this decision should herald renewed commitment on the part of employers to give life to their workplace violence and harassment policies and commitments to psychologically safe workplaces. This can be done by ensuring an employer has the following in place: appropriate policies; training on commitments to harassment- and violence-free workplaces; proper investigation
procedures; and programs that prevent the escalation of matters that could lead to chronic or traumatic mental stress.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of Canadian Occupational Safety.