Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace presented a Bill to Parliament amending the Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 to make it easier for first responders who develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) access the support and medical care they need.
What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a debilitating and often chronic mental health condition associated with the exposure to a single or multiple traumatic events. First responders have a high risk of developing PTSD as they work in potentially traumatic environments every day.
In the initial weeks after someone is exposed to trauma, most people meet criteria for PTSD. Over the first three months 50% recover and this recovery continues over time, with about 10–15% developing PTSD in the longer term.
Knowledge about the diagnosis and treatment of PTSD in emergency service workers is now strongly evidence-based and well delineated. Australian guidelines for the treatment of PTSD were published in 2015, with an aim to utilise a combination of expert opinion and the best available research evidence to produce succinct, focused guidance on the diagnosis and treatment of emergency workers with PTSD.
First responders – a move to better support those who help our community
In Australia, there are over 80,000 full time emergency workers.
First responders across police and emergency services deal with vulnerable people in urgent need who may be injured, in a state of heightened anxiety, shock, or distress, in danger or deceased.
Safe Work Australia reports that the most common cause of serious workers’ compensation claims made by first responders since 2003 were:
- Mental stress 13%
- Lifting/carrying people 7%
- Assault 5%
- Falls on level ground 5%
The serious claims rate is four times higher for first responders than for all occupations, at 37.9 claims per 1000 employees.
In order to help support first responders, Beyond Blue completed a national survey of the mental health and wellbeing of personnel in the police and emergency services. The survey was called “Answering the call”. It was conducted between October 2017 and March 2018, with the results released in November 2018.
The survey helped provide a detailed picture of the issues affecting the mental health and wellbeing of employees, former employees and volunteers who work in emergency services.
The national survey included 21,014 contributors who shared their insights and provided evidence.
- more than half of all emergency services employees indicated that they had experienced a traumatic event that had deeply affected them, during the course of their work
- employees who had worked more than 10 years were almost twice as likely to experience psychological distress and were six times more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD
- three in four employees found the current workers’ compensation process to be detrimental to their recovery
- one in four surveyed former employees experience probable PTSD (compared to one in 10 current employees), and one in five experience very high psychological distress.
The results of the study highlighted the failures of the existing Workers’ Compensation Scheme and the impact of the shortcomings on those who tried to make a claim.
61% of emergency service employees reported a negative impact on their recovery. 69% reported that they received limited to no support during the claims process.
The survey made it clear that changes were critical to help first responders through one of the most vulnerable times in their lives.
Beyond Blue’s survey, along with a Commonwealth Senate inquiry and an independent review of Queensland’s Workers’ Compensation process were the driving forces behind the legislative changes.
“Each and every day, our first responders are exposed to traumatic incidents that most of us could never imagine,” Ms Grace said.
“Attending these types of incidents, whether it be one catastrophic event or a gradual build up over many years, can take a toll on our first responders’ mental health.”
“We acknowledge the vital work performed by our first responders and the impact exposure to trauma can have on their wellbeing and their families.”
The new laws
Under the new laws, first responders, other workers and volunteers who are struggling to cope with PTSD will not have to prove their injury is work-related, it will automatically be presumed.
This is a welcome change as previously first responders would have significant delays and be put through unnecessary investigations in order to prove their PTSD was work-related.
The new law will apply to police, ambulance, paramedics, firefighters, child safety officers, correctional officers, emergency nurses and medical practitioners. Other workers in first responder agencies whose role involves experiencing repeated and extreme exposure to traumatic events will also be covered.
This latest amendment follows new rules which commenced July 1, 2020. The new rules stated:
- Self-insured employers are required to report injuries and any payments made to workers to their insurer
- Workers’ compensation coverage will be extended to unpaid interns and employers will be required to provide the details of their rehabilitation and return to work co-coordinators to their insurer.
It has been historically difficult for a worker to make a psychological or psychiatric injury claim. Unfortunately many insurance companies deny liability on genuine claims when a claimant presents with a psychiatric condition. The insurers know full well that by doing this they are exacerbating the psychological injury of the claimant by denying the claim and prolonging the claim process.
The changes to Queensland legislation is a step in the right direction, however we need to see these go further and be extended to all workers, no matter the industry they work, to ensure PTSD and other psychological conditions are acknowledged and people who suffer psychological workplace injuries can receive the compensation and treatment they are entitled to.