Police dispatcher can’t stay on the line

Worker wanted workers' compensation for stress from taking traumatic calls

This instalment of You Make the Call features a police dispatcher who claimed a stress-related disability that developed from the calls he took over several years of his career.

The 56-year-old dispatcher began working for an Ontario police force in 1975. Over the years, he took many calls that involved “life and death” situations from the public, requiring police assistance. In March 1999, a police officer pushed his emergency button for assistance but the dispatcher couldn’t locate him. After a few tense minutes, it was discovered the officer had a faulty radio and there was no need for assistance.

Soon after the false alarm, the dispatcher went to see his doctor because he was having symptoms of stress and depression. He was also having family problems at the time. The doctor felt the dispatcher was coping well with his situation and he could continue to work.

In October 2003, the dispatcher had a relapse of his depression and felt he couldn’t deal with work. He had experienced other stressful calls, such as an attack on a woman while he was on the phone with her and a man whose son committed suicide. He tried returning to work but, in February 2004, his doctor said he was unable to work due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. He filed a claim for workers’ compensation for a stress disability and after an initial denial, he won an appeal for compensation for acute mental stress. The accident date for his condition was the date of the false alarm emergency button in 1999. During his three months off work, the dispatcher was diagnosed as having “a major depressive episode.”

The dispatcher returned to work in May 2004, occasionally taking days off to deal with his condition. He discussed alternate employment with the police but, as a civilian, his options were limited. He was again diagnosed with PTSD in 2005 and eventually had to stop working again in January 2006, saying he was unable to cope with stressful situations at work.

The dispatcher’s employer appealed the decision to give him compensation, arguing a compensable mental stress disability must be caused by an unexpected, identifiable and objectively traumatic event on the job. The workers’ compensation policy also stated that mental stress that developed over time due to “general workplace conditions” was not compensable.

You Make the Call

Was the dispatcher entitled to workers’ compensation for mental stress?
Did the stress result from a normal part of the job?

If you said the dispatcher was entitled to workers’ compensation, you’re right. The Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal said that it should be expected that the dispatcher would have to respond to emergency calls such as those that contributed to his PTSD, even if he didn’t specifically anticipate them.

However, the tribunal found the false emergency call from the officer in 1999 could not have been reasonably expected. For a period of time, the dispatcher didn’t know where the officer who had pressed the assistance button was and was powerless to do anything. This powerlessness meant he couldn’t do his job: to determine what assistance was needed and where.

“The worker would have reasonably and objectively felt helpless to perform his function of providing aid to a police officer who he logically assumed to be in difficulty,” said the tribunal. “In my view, this does constitute an identifiable event that was objectively traumatic and unexpected.”

The tribunal found the dispatcher’s reaction to this unexpected event caused PTSD and acute mental stress. The fact he continued to take days off to deal with his condition and continued to see doctors made it likely his relapse in 2006 was related to the same event. The tribunal confirmed the entitlement for workers’ compensation for acute mental stress stemming from the incident in March 1999. See Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal Decision No. 443/09, 2009 CarswellOnt 5680 (Ont. W.S.I.A.T.).

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