Harassed worker not entitled to compensation for traumatic stress: Tribunal

Worker's compensation is for conditions arising from single unexpected incident, not ongoing harassment, says tribunal
By Jeffrey R. Smith
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 07/30/2008

An Ontario worker who claimed to have been harassed at work is not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for traumatic stress that resulted from the harassment, the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal has ruled.

The female employee worked as a data entry clerk with a large retail store for nine years. She claimed she was repeatedly harassed by her co-workers and it was tolerated by the store.

The employee claimed a co-worker call her a “dumb African,” a “pretty face” and a “stupid person” after a disagreement on work duties. She told a supervisor, who spoke to the co-worker.

Up to that point, her performance appraisals had been good. However, at her first appraisal after her complaint, she was told to work at being more co-operative and compromising in her relations with co-workers. She was also told to be less sensitive. She agreed and vowed to try to do as the company asked.

In October 2003, the employee reported to her manager that a co-worker called her a racially based profanity. The co-worker claimed it was a joke but was reprimanded. However, following this incident, the employee’s work hours were reduced, which made her upset and she sought treatment from her doctor for headaches and sleep interruptions. The doctor recommended two weeks’ rest and later extended her medical leave for two months until December 2003.

The employee continued to experience stress that caused headaches and sleep interruptions into 2004 and filed a claim under the

Workers’ Safety and Insurance Act

’s traumatic mental stress policy on March 3, stating her problems were the result of stress caused by the harassment she faced at work.

On March 18, 2005, the claim was denied by the Appeals Resolution Officer, who ruled the stress was not the result of a sudden and unexpected traumatic event, a requirement for benefits.

On the appeal, the tribunal agreed, noting its Operations Policy Manual qualifies harassment as a “sudden and unexpected traumatic event” only if it includes physical violence, the threat of physical violence or a life-threatening situation. The manual also disqualifies the gradual development of stress from “general workplace conditions.

“Although the worker described a number of incidents involving disagreements with co-workers, which we accept as upsetting to her, none were objectively traumatic, including the final episode that caused the worker to seek medical care,” the tribunal said. The tribunal noted the employee filed a complaint of harassment with the Ontario Human Rights Commission which had been settled. It said this process was the “appropriate vehicle” for the employee and not the WSIB appeal process. See

Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal Decision No. 301/08

(Feb. 8, 2008).

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