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Mental health provisions causing concern for the construction industry

Shannon Moneo

Changes to the Workers’ Compensation Act to address mental disorders is causing some apprehension within B.C.’s construction industry.


In July 2012, the provincial government passed Bill 14.

“We found a lot of our members are anxious about workers being able to say they’re depressed or saying that some guy is bugging them at work,” said Alicia Brady-Deaust, communications manager with the B.C. Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA).

Much of the concern centres around knowing what’s a credible complaint and how the workplace contributed to the mental disorder, which has replaced mental stress.

Barely one year old, Bill 14 hasn’t generated much data about how claims have been adjudicated, so the amendment’s effectiveness remains a grey area, Brady-Deaust added.

WorkSafeBC communications officer Megan Johnston said that her office doesn’t have data related to the prevalence of mental disorders.

Claims related to the bill are only now beginning to arrive.

Prior to Bill 14, a worker was only entitled to WorkSafeBC compensation if mental stress was an acute reaction to a sudden and unexpected traumatic event arising via their employment.

Brady-Deaust used the example of a worker witnessing an on-site death or injury.

Now, a worker may qualify for compensation if the mental disorder results from not one, but two, circumstances.

First, compensation may be awarded if the mental disorder is a reaction to one or more traumatic events arising via employment.

Second, a worker may get compensation if the mental disorder is predominantly caused by a significant work-related stressor, or if a cumulative series of significant work-related stressors arise out of the worker’s employment.

Such stressors could include a series of near misses, where injury was avoided.

Ongoing bullying or harassment also qualifies.

“It creates anxiety about going to work,” Brady-Deaust said.

“Now, if you sustain bullying and harassment over time and it becomes a mental disorder, it’s now compensable.”

To determine if a workplace claim can be accepted, the worker must be diagnosed by a psychiatrist or psychologist.

A physician’s diagnosis is no longer sufficient.

The diagnosis must fit one of the conditions described in the most recent American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

“For employers, the problem becomes: Where is the line?” Brady-Deaust said.

But, what is, or isn’t, a claim or what is the tipping point, are not necessarily what employers should be concerned with, she added.

The focus should be on what needs to be done to improve the workplace environment and to ensure supervisors and workers are trained for the modern workplace.

Companies may have procedures in place that look good on paper, but if an obnoxious supervisor has free rein, mental disorder claims could follow.

Brady-Deaust cited an example, where it’s common to have “old school supervisors” who speak to staff in unacceptable ways.

This supervisor may have been considered a good employee, a great carpenter who got the job done, but in today’s diverse working environment, there’s a good chance that his style could draw bullying or harassment complaints.

That supervisor, now becomes a liability to the company, a liability that can incur big costs, she explained.

“Companies need to get them training or need to let them go, Brady-Deaust

Three years ago, the management group at New Westminster’s Winvan Paving saw the writing on the wall.

In 2010, in response to concerns about bullying, Winvan created policies to deal with supervisors, who yelled at or intimidated employees.

Eyebrows in the construction industry were raised, but Winvan has proven to be ahead of the curve.

“It’s not the old world anymore,” said Carol Weismiller, Winvan’s risk and safety manager.

“Workers are getting younger. They have a different way of thinking. They don’t accept that kind of behaviour.”

Winvan hired Vancouver’s Integrity Group, lawyers who specialize in the resolution of workplace conflict, harassment and discrimination.

Workplace policies were created and once a year, Integrity Group presents a four-hour education and year-in-review session to Winvan’s 150 employees.

Problem employees are sent to Integrity for training.

If necessary, the employees are disciplined and if need be, are terminated.

Weismiller admitted that a few employees have been let go.

The BCCSA has found that a majority of construction bosses don’t get the training that teaches them to be leaders, who forgo the hammer in favour of a softer touch.

If training is provided, it often doesn’t happen until about a decade after they’ve become a supervisor, Brady-Deaust said.

Recently, the BCCSA has endorsed two courses which target mental health and safety.

The first, Safe and Sound: Bill 14 and Beyond, was co-developed with the Canadian Mental Health Association.

The course, either a four-hour presentation or six-hour activity/discussion option, examines bullying and harassment and how to support a psychologically safe and healthy workplace.

The response has already been strong, Brady-Deaust said.

The second course, Supervisors’ Bootcamp, is Gold Seal certified.

Building on traditional skills of enforcement, engineering and education, the course is designed to bring awareness to skills such as empathy, empowerment and engagement.

Weismiller, who has 25 years of construction industry experience, has taken BCCSA courses and said the solid training has been a benefit.

Just as physical first aid has been pivotal in the construction industry, today, mental first aid is being recognized, Brady-Deaust said.

The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability throughout the world, trailing only heart disease.

According to a 2006 Government of Canada study, in 2003, mental illness accounted for 30 per cent of disability claims and 70 percent of the total costs of those claims.

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