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Flour mill technician wins appeal for chronic mental stress benefits

by HR Law Canada

A lab technician at a flour mill has been awarded workers’ compensation benefits for chronic mental stress (CMS) on appeal by the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal (WSIAT).

The worker, who had been employed at the flour mill since 2001, reported ongoing harassment from a co-worker, leading to severe mental stress and psychiatric difficulties.

Background and initial investigation

The worker reported on March 31, 2018, that she had been subjected to harassment by a colleague, referred to in the ruling as M. The employer conducted an investigation, substantiating several allegations of harassment.

M received a disciplinary warning and was instructed to avoid contact with the worker. Despite these measures, the worker did not return to work, citing ongoing fear and stress related to the harassment.

The worker initially sought CMS benefits from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), which were granted in December 2018. However, the employer objected, and an Appeals Resolution Officer (ARO) rescinded the benefits, concluding that the incidents did not meet the threshold for “workplace harassment” under the CMS policy.

WSIAT ruling

The WSIAT panel reviewed extensive evidence, including testimony from the worker, M, and various co-workers, as well as documentation from the initial investigation. The panel determined that M’s conduct towards the worker escalated from a friendly relationship to unwelcome and egregious behaviour, constituting workplace harassment.

The ruling outlined several key findings:

  • M’s conduct included unsolicited touching, lingering in the lab without work-related reasons, watching the worker through security cameras, and making inappropriate comments.
  • The worker’s attempts to limit contact, such as requesting a notice to be posted barring non-lab personnel from the lab, were documented and corroborated by other employees.
  • The worker reported severe psychological distress resulting from the harassment, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which were medically diagnosed and linked to the workplace harassment.

The panel emphasized that the harassment significantly impacted the worker’s mental health, meeting the criteria for a substantial work-related stressor under the WSIB’s CMS policy. The worker’s medical documentation and ongoing treatment supported her claims of severe psychological impact.

Medical and diagnostic requirements

The WSIAT noted the CMS policy’s requirement for an appropriately diagnosed mental stress injury caused by a substantial workplace stressor. Medical reports from Dr. Smith and Dr. Harris confirmed the worker’s diagnosis of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. The doctors advised against the worker’s return to the same workplace as M, emphasizing the risk to her mental health.

Dr. Smith’s report on Oct. 5, 2018, highlighted the worker’s significant trauma and the necessity of avoiding any interaction with M. Dr. Harris echoed these sentiments, stating that the employer’s proposed measures were insufficient to mitigate the psychological impact on the worker.

Conclusion and disposition

The WSIAT panel concluded that the evidence substantiated the worker’s claim of workplace harassment and its severe psychological consequences. The panel restored the worker’s entitlement to CMS benefits and Loss of Earnings (LOE) benefits from April 18, 2018, onwards.

The determination of the extent of the worker’s benefits was remitted to the WSIB for further adjudication.

For more information, see Decision No. 1276/23, 2024 ONWSIAT 664 (CanLII).

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