Stressed call centre worker goes off the hook

Emergency call triggers bad memories for call centre representative

This instalment of You Make the Call looks at a worker who claimed workers’ compensation for traumatic mental stress.

The 34 year-old worked at a call centre for mobile communication systems for drivers. He was in the subscriber advisor department, which assisted clients with non-emergency concerns. Emergency calls were usually routed to an emergency department, though his department handled “overflow” emergency calls. He was taught to connect subscribers with an emergency to police or 911 service but little else on how to handle emergency calls.

On Feb. 26, 2004, the worker received an overflow emergency call from a woman who asked him to track the location of her sister’s vehicle. When he said he couldn’t track the vehicle of a third party unless police were involved, the woman said she was afraid her sister might attempt to commit suicide. She became angry and abusive and refused his offer to connect her to 911 or the police. After about 10 minutes, a supervisor took over the call. Eventually, the supervisor convinced the caller to contact emergency services and after another 30 minutes, with the worker listening on the line, the matter was resolved.

At the end of the call, the worker was shaking and having trouble breathing. He went to the washroom, began crying and had to go home. He took the next day off. The worker said the call brought back emotional problems from when he was younger as well as memories of a good friend who had committed suicide five years earlier. He had a panic attack at work on April 17, 2004, and attempted to return to work three more times but “could not function.” He was diagnosed with “post-traumatic stress disorder” and filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits for mental stress from an unexpected traumatic event at work.
Did the worker’s mental stress qualify as an illness warranting workers’ compensation benefits?
Was the stress not employment-related?

If you said the worker’s stress was not an employment-related illness warranting benefits, you’re right. The tribunal said the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Act and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board’s (WSIB) policy manual both stipulate benefits are available for “mental stress that is an acute reaction to a sudden and unexpected traumatic event rising out of and in the course of employment.” It also agreed the worker did experience post-traumatic stress disorder from the call.

However, the tribunal found the incident wasn’t unexpected. Even though he wasn’t part of the emergency department, it was part of his job to handle overflow emergency calls and therefore he should expect to receive emergency calls occasionally.

“The fact the type of emergency that arose on Feb. 26, 2004, was not specifically anticipated by the worker, does not cause us to find that it was unexpected,” the tribunal said.

The tribunal also found the incident itself wasn’t “objectively traumatic.” The call was not directly from someone attempting suicide and was only traumatic because of the worker’s personal history and unresolved feelings.

“Had the worker not had that history and those feelings, (he) would not have perceived the event as traumatic or suffered any disability as a result of the event,” the tribunal said. “The event was not traumatic when considered from a point of view that is independent of the worker’s perspective.”

The tribunal also pointed out the WSIB’s policy says the worker must have witnessed or heard the traumatic event first hand or had direct contact with the “victim.” In this case, the victim would be the caller’s sister, with whom the worker had no direct contact. The appeals resolution officer and the appeals tribunal denied the claim for compensation benefits. See Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal Decision No. 509/07 (March 7, 2007) M. Crystal Vice-Chair (Ont. W.S.A.I.T.).

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