(Canadian OH&S News) — Ontario has become the latest province to enact legislation making post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) a presumptively occupational disease. The Ministry of Labour (MOL) announced on April 5 that the provincial legislature had passed Bill 163, the Supporting Ontario’s First Responders Act (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) — under which first responders no longer have to prove that they developed PTSD from their occupations in order to receive workers’ compensation benefits.
The new law applies to police officers, firefighters, emergency-response teams, paramedics, some corrections employees and other workers who are first on the scene in traumatic situations. These workers are now entitled to benefits from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) after receiving a PTSD diagnosis from a psychiatrist or psychologist, as the WSIB must presume the condition is job-related.
“Psychological injury is just as damaging, is just as harmful, and is just as preventable in many ways as a physical injury,” Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn told COHSN. First responders are profoundly susceptible to PTSD because their jobs put them in dangerous situations regularly, he added: “A first responder cannot refuse unsafe work the same way that somebody else could. It’s expected that you’re going to put yourself in harm’s way.
“We knew we needed a unique approach to these folks. They deserved a little bit more than the rest of us expect from the system,” Flynn continued. “They didn’t want to go through what is really a thoroughly rigorous process to prove to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board that the injury you’ve sustained was actually on the job.”
The WSIB expressed support of the legislation in a press release from president and CEO Tom Teahen.
“Workers can be confident that the WSIB is here to provide timely benefits and services,” said Teahen. “Our goal is to work with our health and safety partners to make Ontario a national leader in prevention and support of workers suffering from PTSD.”
Flynn said that stigma around PTSD had kept the disease from becoming a political priority until recent years.
“An awful lot of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, from chronic mental stress, weren’t coming forward and getting help,” he explained. “They were suffering in silence.” These workers likely thought that their employers and colleagues would think less of them and curtail their chances of promotion or further employment, said Flynn — and “in the past, a lot of those things were probably true.”
One of the few dissenting voices about the presumption law has been the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA), which said that it was “outraged” at the perceived exclusion of registered nurses from the bill in an April 4 press release.
“Our heroic nurses are witness to and experience a wide array of critical and traumatizing events,” ONA first vice president Vicki McKenna said in the release. “Registered nurses are in every sense first responders… [who] are sent into harm’s way on a regular basis.”
Flynn responded that the system had already seemed to be working well for certain workers, such as nurses and transit operators, whose WSIB claims for PTSD had been approved relatively easily. He added that nurses who work within certain sectors covered under the legislation, such as corrections, are eligible for the presumption.
Flynn stressed that prevention of PTSD was extremely important, citing the prevention strategy that the MOL had initiated earlier this year (COHSN, Feb. 9). The strategy includes a media awareness campaign and a free online toolkit of resources for employers.
“Some of the money that we put into occupational health and safety research, we’re now going to turn some of that type of funding towards post-traumatic stress disorder prevention-technique research,” said Flynn. In addition, employers covered by the presumptive legislation are required to have full PTSD prevention plans, and “I have the ability now to require them to provide me with their PTSD prevention plans, and I’m going to publish those plans.”
Manitoba amended its Workers Compensation Act with similar legislation at the beginning of this year (COHSN, Jan. 5), although the amendment covers PTSD for all professions, not just for first responders.
The Supporting Ontario’s First Responders Act (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) covers more than 73,000 first responders across Ontario, according to information from the MOL.