Much has been written, and rightly so, of the heroism of fire fighters, police officers, and emergency medical personnel following the events of September 11, 2001. In the past two weeks, the bombing of the Boston Marathon and the tragic explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas have reminded us once again of the vital services provided by men and women in these professions. The nature of their occupation requires that they rush to scenes of catastrophes to aid the victims, regardless of the danger to their own safety. A growing body of evidence makes clear, however, that the dangers confronting them go beyond the obvious physical hazards of the jobs they do. Studies of New York City police and firefighters who worked at the site of the World Trade Center have shown significantly elevated rates of acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.
It should surprise no one that first responders have a higher rate of work-related mental health conditions than most other occupational groups. According to the diagnostic criteria adopted by the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD can result from exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor which involves the threat of death or serious physical injury, or by witnessing events which involve the death or serious injury of another. Decades of research into the causes of post-traumatic stress disorder have made it clear that just as combat veterans who were not wounded in action may develop PTSD, civilian workers exposed to the aftermath of terrorist attacks, explosions, or accidents resulting in death or serious bodily injury of another person can develop PTSD, even though they were not physically injured.
According to Article II, Section 35 of the Ohio Constitution, workers’ compensation laws exist “for the purpose of providing compensation to workmen and their dependents for death, injuries, or occupational disease, occasioned in the course of such workmen’s employment.” It cannot be doubted that emergency responders are often exposed by the very nature of their employment to exactly the types of events which have long been known to cause post-traumatic stress disorder. It would seem logical, therefore, that workers’ compensation laws should provide protection for the men and women called upon to risk their physical and emotional well-being to aid and protect us in times of great danger. Ohio workers’ compensation law, however, does not.
Under the Ohio workers’ compensation act, a psychiatric condition is not considered to be an injury, unless it was caused by some physical injury or disease sustained in the course of employment. The Ohio General Assembly has made it the law that psychological conditions are covered if, and only if, the psychological condition arose as a complication of a physical injury sustained in the course of employment. This means that police officers, firefighters, paramedics and other workers who develop PTSD as the result of exposure to extreme psychological trauma in the course of their employment are denied the compensation and medical benefits which the workers’ compensation act is supposed to provide to all employees who suffer work-related injuries. For men and women in these occupations, the duties of employment require that they subject themselves to events and conditions known to cause serious and sometimes debilitating psychological harm. It is simply wrong for the law to turn its back on them.
The votes of a legislative majority may have made it the law in Ohio that there can be no psychiatric injury in the absence of a physical injury, but no legislative enactment can ever make this the truth. Fortunately, wrongs caused by acts of the legislature can be righted in the same fashion. If you think that the men and women who risk everything for our protection deserve better than they get under the present law, please contact your state representatives and state senators.