Are stressful situations ‘unexpected’ for emergency workers?

By Jeffrey R. Smith (

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

1 Response to “Are stressful situations ‘unexpected’ for emergency workers?”

  1. 1 Victoria Crowder-Bansen August 11, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    You make some very valid points. However, I can tell you in my very humble experience there are just some expected events that unexpectedly result in very emotional and even visceral reactions — which undoubtedly result in added stress knowing that your reaction was not one of expected or perceived professionalism (collegial or public perception).

    There is a difference between book learning and the reality of feeling that your actions can determine the outcome of a situation particularly when you are dealing with life and death matters. To question every day whether your action or inaction resulted in an untoward outcome and then contributed to not just the victim/patient’s outcome but also dramatically affected the people in their lives is a heavy burden to carry.

    Many emergency workers — (doctors, nurses, firefighters and police alike) believe whole heartedly that their response is the only determining factor of outcome and when that outcome is not a perceived positive one (in the individual’s determination) it causes stress — unlike any other — it is the ‘What if’ syndrome. You can’t go back and change the fact that circumstances prevented you from performing the duties that, when at their most vulnerable, people expect you to perform.

    At the end of the day little Johnny doesn’t care that you were unable to locate his Dad because the satellites were down – his Dad is dead and you didn’t do your job and thats the stress you live with. Emergency Workers are expected to be flawless and error-less – inhuman if you will – there is no room for mistakes when you are dealing with peoples lives – they trust you like they trust no other – they expect nothing less than you to be perfect at what you do 100% of the time without exception.

    That is an insurmountable expectation to live up to although it is expected. When placed on such a high pedestal it is a very long fall off. Don’t get me wrong I am the first one to say that I hope the medic, the nurse, or the surgeon working on me or my loved one is on his or her top game but I also realize that they like anyone else are human and circumstantial mishaps may occur – however they are entirely different from careless or reckless mishaps. So while I agree stressful situations are expected the fallout and collateral damage that comes from those stressful situations cannot be taught nor anticipated despite the nature of the job and the expectation to “just suck it up” is part of the problem. There is only so much that one person can take and these workers are stretched to the brink daily and no one knows, not even them, just what the breaking point is.

    The truth of the matter is that if a Firefighter were physically injured while rescuing someone from a fire they would be compensated because it is a part of the job. No one would ever dispute or deny a claim for a visible physical injury so why then when it involves mental health is it questionable. Why? Because it is intangible. I think there is still a great deal of stigma and grey area when it comes to stress or other mental health issues and I strongly believe that there are individuals who abuse the system reinforcing those stigmas however they are the minority.

    Lastly, just to play the devil’s advocate for a moment although I would disagree – Do we deny claims to office and factory workers like repetitive strain injury due to typing or machine operation as it may be a part of their job OR what about a war vet trained in combat deployed to Afghanistan – there is a reasonable expectation that they will discharge their weapon(s) with the outcome resulting in the death of others OR a bank teller that gets held up at gun point. Bank robberies have been going on for decades – it should be expected no? I bet that teller would be in disagreement after having a revolver pointed at them.

    The truth is that stress is individual. Some will walk away unscathed others will never be the same. Two people in the exact same moment will never experience the same reality and therefore there can be no expectation to know how you will react in any given situation or the stress response it will elicit.

    Just my thoughts.

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