Employer not responsible for "shift work sleep disorder"

Appeal court tosses out case of Michelin employee who claimed shift work caused debilitating insomnia

A tire company worker can’t hold his employer responsible for his inability to do shift work, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has ruled.

Richard Ross, a Michelin employee, said shift work caused him to have debilitating insomnia. In January 2002, the province’s Workers’ Compensation Board appeals tribunal recognized “shift work maladaption syndrome” or “shift work sleep disorder” as a condition that should be compensated. Michelin appealed, and the court threw out the case in a unanimous decision.

Justice Gerald Freeman said Ross’s inability to adapt was a personal characteristic and not something that arose as a result of his employment.

“It cannot be said that simply because the condition manifests itself at work that the conditions or its symptoms arise out of or in the course of employment,” said Freeman.

Ross worked rotating shifts at Michelin’s Bridgewater, N.S. plant, where he had been employed for 14 years. In a short period of time he could work, for example, three days from midnight to 8 a.m., four days 4 p.m. to midnight and then start working 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with only a couple of days off scattered in between.

If the appeal court had agreed with the WCB ruling, it could have had significant implications for employers. The Alliance of Manufacturers and Exporters Canada, an umbrella group representing 110 companies with about 45,000 workers in Nova Scotia, was worried the case would set an expensive precedent. Dick Smith, provincial vice-president, told the Halifax Daily News the group was pleased with the appeal court’s decision.

“We just want to make sure that Workers’ Comp is used for its original purposes, and not for psychological problems,” he said. “That’s what we stressed in our intervention, is it’s probably akin to something like stress, which is usually not allowed unless it’s really traumatic stress.”

Norma Nixon, corporate communications manager with Michelin, said there was a great deal of concern in the business community over the case. She said shift work is a reality in many workplaces, and workers are made aware during the hiring process of the hours of work and the work schedules that would be required of them.

Ross is still employed by Michelin but is on short-term disability and isn’t currently working, said Nixon. She said he has full access to the company’s benefits plan, and he is in a retraining program taking some courses with Michelin’s assistance.

“So in terms of what the future holds for Mr. Ross, we really don’t know at this point,” Nixon told the Daily News. “It’s going to depend on his medical condition.”

The case can still be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

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