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Mental health claims could cost firms big bucks: COCA

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by Peter Caulfield

The Council of Construction Associations (COCA) has launched an education campaign to alert the construction industry in British Columbia about recent changes to the Workers' Compensation Act that, it says, could cost employers a lot of money.

The Council of Construction Associations (COCA) has launched an education campaign to alert the construction industry in British Columbia about recent changes to the Workers' Compensation Act that, it says, could cost employers a lot of money.

In July 2012, the B.C. legislature passed amendments that will liberalize the criteria for accepting stress claims, which are now called mental disorder claims.

To address the Bill 14 changes, WorkSafeBC’s policy on mental disorders (C3-13.00) was amended effective the same day the legislation was passed.

COCA president Grant McMillan presented a training seminar on the legislation and how it could affect construction industry employers.

His association has serious concerns about the changes.

“The new legislation allows for gradual onset claims, without the need for a single specific incident or trigger,” McMillan said.

The legislation also has provisions for bullying and harassment.

“The great difficulty here is how to separate work-related events from non-work events, such as family problems, and personal finance and health issues,” he said.

COCA opposed these changes, which were first going to come into effect on Jan. 1. As a result, some parts of the legislation were changed in order to reflect employers’ concerns about its possible impact.

For example, mental stress was changed to mental disorder, so that the terminology corresponded to the American Psychiatric Association’s definition in its Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders for diagnostic purposes. The manual requires a specific medical diagnosis, as a general complaint of stress is insufficient.

In addition, a professionally accredited psychiatrist or psychologist, not the worker’s physician, must diagnose the mental disorder.

Additionally, the mental disorder must be caused predominantly by a significant work-related stressor.

“We agree with these changes, but we continue to believe that the amendments to the Workers’ Compensation Act will result in significantly higher costs, especially in the public sector,” McMillan said.

B.C. employers need to find out about the terms of the new provisions and add a new section to their occupational health and safety programs to deal with new claims, he said.

Employers can seek assistance from the provincial government’s Employers’ Advisers Office.

The only other jurisdiction with similar legislation is Australia, where it has added significantly to employer costs.

“The experience with expanded stress legislation in Australia should serve as a warning for British Columbia,” McMillan said.

According to the Dec. 8, 2011 on-line edition of The Australian newspaper, “The federal workers’ compensation scheme is battling a 30 per cent surge in mental stress claims, sparking union warnings that Wayne Swan’s plan to reap $1.5 billion in savings through a public service efficiency dividend will put unprecedented strains on the sector.

“New figures from Comcare - which runs the federal workers’ compensation scheme for all of the government’s departments and most of its authorities, as well as for some big national firms – reveal that the cost of mental stress claims has soared from $53 million in 2008-09 to $70 million in 2010-11, while the incidence of the claims has risen by 30 per cent over this time.”

In late August and early September, McMillan brought his Bill 14 educational seminar to members of B.C. Construction Association – North in the cities of Prince Rupert, Terrace, Smithers, Prince George, Quesnel and Williams Lake.

BCCA – North president Rosalind Thorn attended all of the seminars.

They lasted about an hour, including a question-and-answer session and were attended by a total of about 60 people.

“That’s a good number for this time of year in the north,” Thorn said. “Now is our busiest period.”

She said there was plenty of interest in the presentation.

“They asked a lot of questions,” Thorn said.

“They wanted to know what action employers and supervisors can take to prevent claims. They asked, ‘What is meant by bullying and harassment? How do we ensure we’re doing all the right things?’”

During his northern seminars, McMillan said employers need to be careful about the extracurricular events they organize, even if they take place outside work hours.

For example, an employer could be considered responsible for untoward behavior between employees that takes place at the annual Christmas party or a summer golf tournament.

The Lower Mainland seminar was held at the Vancouver Regional Construction Association training room on Oct. 19.

McMillan followed up the seminar with a written information bulletin.

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