Are stressful situations 'unexpected' for emergency workers?

By Jeffrey R. Smith ([email protected])

It’s not uncommon for workers to get stressed because of their jobs. But there are certainly different types and levels of stress. Office workers can get stressed over piles of paperwork or tight deadlines. But there are dangerous jobs, such as police and firefighting, where stressful situations often mean life or death. However, people going into the latter types of work generally know what they’re getting into.

Acute stress is starting to be recognized as a disability that warrants workers’ compensation benefits if it prevents someone from working, much as a physical injury would. However, in most jurisdictions, there are specific limitations to considering it a compensable condition. For example, the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board has a policy on “traumatic mental stress” that provides benefits if the stress is “an acute reaction to a sudden and unexpected traumatic event arising out of and in the course of employment.”

The event must be clearly identifiable, objectively traumatic and unexpected in the regular course of the worker’s job and work environment. Circumstances such as an officer worker experiencing violence or a fire at work could qualify.

But what about employment where potentially stress-inducing incidents are a regular and expected part of the job? This question was raised when an Ontario police dispatcher had to go off work because of post-traumatic stress disorder that was initiated by a particular call he received and was aggravated by other tense calls.

The dispatcher had worked for 25 years without any problems, but a call where he received a request for emergency response for a police officer left a lasting mark on him. Due to a technical problem he couldn’t locate the officer and there were several tense minutes where he didn’t know what was happening. This incident led to trouble sleeping and other psychological problems for the dispatcher. Later incidents where he spoke to a woman being stabbed and a man who had found his son committed suicide contributed to further stress.

The dispatcher’s claim for workers’ compensation for acute stress was initially denied but eventually approved as an appeal tribunal felt that, although these types of calls were a part of the job, the situation where he didn’t know where the officer was or what was happening was unexpected. The circumstances prevented him from doing his job and that contributed to acute stress which prevented him from working.

Should someone in a job such as a police dispatcher receive workers’ compensation for stress? Though the one call wasn’t typical, shouldn’t emergency calls and tense situations always be expected? Can incidents like this really be considered unexpected in the normal or daily course of employment such as this, which is usually a requirement for worker’s compensation for acute stress-related conditions?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit

Latest stories