Shift work leads to syndrome and successful WCB claim

A Workers’ Compensation Board appeals tribunal in Nova Scotia has recognized “shift work maladaption syndrome” or “shift work sleep disorder” as a condition that should be compensated.

The ruling was based on the case of Richard Ross, whose shift work caused him to have debilitating insomnia. The tribunal said his case was an exceptional one, in which he had symptoms extreme enough to be disabling. At times, he says, he was only able to sleep one to three hours between shifts and feared for his safety on the job because of his resultant drowsiness.

Ross worked rotating shifts at the Michelin plant in Nova Scotia. 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.

This erratic schedule created havoc with his body clock and even sleeping pills didn’t help the situation because they left him too tired the next day to work effectively.

One psychiatrist who testified at the hearing said that Ross had a natural lack of tolerance to shift work and was otherwise extremely healthy.

Ross’ initial claim to the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia in November 1999 was denied, and he appealed. A board hearing officer ruled in his favour in May 2000. Michelin appealed that decision and the result was this recent ruling, in favour of Ross. Michelin is considering appealing the decision to the province’s Court of Appeal.

This is the first ruling of its kind and it could have enormous implications for HR managers because of the large number of shift workers throughout the country.

There are about 11,000 nurses in Nova Scotia alone, for instance, and their average age is about 45. (Workers find it harder to adapt to shift work the older they are.) And nursing is just one shift-reliant occupation, there are many others with thousands more workers in every province across the country. Nova Scotia will require workers who want compensation based on shift maladaptive syndrome to have medical evidence that the shifts are causing a disabling condition. Shift work maladaption syndrome is now recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.

Ross is getting disability benefits and workers’ compensation and says he hopes to get a day job at Michelin. The company is paying for him to take college upgrading courses and, currently, he’s sleeping well.

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