Monday, April 23, 2007


The Virginia Tech community has undergone and is in the midst of tremendous stress. In addition to the suffering the community is already going through, the stress will continue to show up in different ways over time. One of the very real results from traumatic events such as that at VT is the inability of participants, victims, observers to get past the event and return to normal living. The shock to the system of a traumatic event causes more stress than the body is able to handle. What this means is that the body’s normal ability to deal with stressful situations is damaged. One of the most commonly recognized disorders of this type is PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The term PTSD appears to have garnered most of its attention subsequent to the 1991 Gulf war. What was described as shell shock in the first world war and battle fatigue in the second wars, saw increasing numbers after the Viet Nam war and the ailment subsequently came to be recognized as legitimate gaining the tag PTSD. Subsequently it has become a common diagnosis for many people exposed to traumatic events.

The employment law question here will be which workers at and around Virginian Tech will be entitled to stress leave and or workers' compensation as a result. The first and most obvious group will be those faculty members and admin staff that were directly exposed to the shooter or any of the victims. Then other college employees who will have been traumatized even though they did not directly witness any of it, may still feel the effects of the shock because they no longer feel safe in their workplace. Finally, the police and other emergency personnel, despite encountering tragedies as a regular part of their jobs, may also experience PTSD symptoms and be entitled to worker’s compensation benefits.

The Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Act specifically allows for benefits to be paid in such circumstances. Section 13 of the Act states that "A worker is entitled to benefits for mental stress that is an acute reaction to a sudden and unexpected traumatic event arising out of and in the course of his or her employment." There is no doubt that the VT shootings were sudden and unexpected traumatic event.

The Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board's policy defines traumatic events to include "being the object of threats of physical violence where the worker believes the threats are serious and harmful to self or others (e.g., bomb threats or confronted with a weapon); being the object of harassment that includes physical violence or threats of physical violence (e.g., the escalation of verbal abuse into traumatic physical abuse); being the object of harassment that includes being placed in a life-threatening or potentially life-threatening situation. The worker must have suffered or witnessed the traumatic event first hand, or heard the traumatic event first hand through direct contact with the traumatized individual(s) (e.g., speaking with the victim(s) on the radio or telephone as the traumatic event is occurring). "

Clearly, many if not all of the employees at VT felt they were in a life threatening situation. When it comes to emergence personnel who regularly encounter traumatic events, claims will be allowed where there is a cumulative effect of truama over a period of time. However, given the scale of this tragedy, it would not be unreasonable to assume that most emergency personnel, despite being familiar with minor scale trauma, would experience significant stress as a result of this situation.

Symptoms may include amongst others, flashbacks, nightmares , insomina, emotional detachment, irritability, hypervigilence, irritability, depression, anxiety, and memory loss.
Compensation benefits are wide ranging and in the first instance, even before loss of earnings is an issue, the medical costs associated with the "injury" will be covered. This would include necessary treatment and drugs. In extreme circumstances where the worker would no longer be able to function in that workplace, job retraining (labour marker re-entry) may be provided

Thus for entitlement to worker’s comp benefits, the workers will have to have an acute reaction. There is a requirement that this acute, or severe, reaction occur within four weeks of the event. There must also be a DSM IV (Diagnostics Statistics Manual for Mental Disorders) diagnosis made by a pyshciatrist or psychologist. The diagnosis may be for PTSD, or acute stress disorder, adjustment disorder, or an anxiety or depressive disorder.

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