Employers are as responsible for the emotional health of workers injured on the job as for the treatment of physical
injury, a Salt Lake expert in post-trauma stress disorders told a national convention recently.Barry M. Richards, founder of the National Institute for Prevention of Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder, said the justice system is increasingly recognizing the responsibility of employers to consider emotional trauma in work-site accidents.
Richards spoke during the annual conference of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies in New Orleans. He cited statistics showing a 2,000 percent increase in recent years in the number of employee compensation claims for emotional suffering caused by job-related experiences.
Employers and insurance companies traditionally are reluctant to compensate for emotional disabilities, he said. "For the untrained employer and insurer, identifying which cases are fraudulent and which are legitimate can be difficult."
More frequently, employees who feel their emotional states have been damaged take their cases to litigation. During 1989, courts awarded an average $325,000 in compensation when employers were found to be liable.
New terms such as "psychic damage" and "mental distress" have become ways to describe what is really post-traumatic stress disorder, Richards said.
Many of the survivors of the United Airlines crash in Iowa last year have filed post-traumatic stress disorder claims against the airline. Computer chip workers in California's Silicon Valley also have sued for mental stress caused by exposure to toxic chemicals.
Richards advised employers of three steps they can take to avoid unnecessary loss of employees and expensive lawsuits arising from emotional distress: train key people in the nature, causes and prevention of post-traumatic stress; evaluate procedures for responding to work-related trauma; and evaluate insurance coverage for legitimate mental health assistance needs.
The California Supreme Court upheld a couple's suit against a tram operator after they witnessed the bloody death of another passenger. New York compensated a state employee who suffered emotionally after receiving notices he would be fired. The stress caused a blood vessel in his eye to rupture. Another case involved a woman who became disturbed after helping a co-worker whose hand was severed by a machine.
Twenty-seven states, including California, New York and Illinois, have enacted laws to protect individuals from emotional distress originating in the workplace. Utah's Legislature will consider similar legislation during the 1991 session, Richards said.
When emotional distress is not dealt with following an accident, a worker's production may fall, although the physical manifestations of the accident have passed, he said. Resentment, fear and anger can arise as the employee's needs are ignored.
Richards founded his institute to train personnel who are frequently involved in the treatment of trauma victims and to develop educational materials. Current clients are law enforcement agencies, disability insurance companies, hospitals and a federal agency.
He also is author of a book, "Thriving After Surviving," a self-help volume for people who have suffered accident or injury. It is used to help patients in LDS Hospital's shock/trauma center.