Post-Traumatic Stress – the lag between incident and occurrence

31 August 2018

In a recent Victorian County Court decision, a worker who nearly drowned in 2012 has been declared seriously injured suffering post-traumatic stress, and granted permission to sue a major company, whose previous incarnation was fined $600,000 for playing “Russian roulette” with workers’ lives.

Background

In April 2012, a plant operator was in the cabin of an excavator on an overloaded barge travelling across the Patterson River when the barge tipped over and sank, and he was thrown into the water. The worker could hardly keep himself afloat in the water because of his heavy clothing, swallowed a lot of water and had to be resuscitated.

His employer, then operating as Thiess Services Pty Ltd, was eventually convicted and fined $600,000 for OHS breaches, and WorkSafe Victoria slammed it for choosing “to play Russian roulette” with workers’ lives by loading a 13-tonne excavator onto a barge with a five-tonne capacity.

The worker then claimed he sustained an incapacitating psychiatric injury from almost drowning during the incident and sought leave to commence proceedings against Ventia Utility Services Pty Ltd (Ventia) for pain and suffering and loss of earning capacity. He said he initially believed he recovered well mentally after the incident, but as time passed his symptoms increased and he stopped working in December 2017. He said his psychological condition was further exacerbated by having to do menial tasks at work and the company changing hands and no longer supporting him.

Hearing & Decision

Ventia told Victorian County Court Judge Andrea Tsalamandris that the three-year gap between the 2012 incident and the worker seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress symptoms showed the incident didn’t cause his ongoing psychiatric condition. It submitted there was no record of him suffering any PTSD symptoms until 2015, by which time any symptoms from the barge incident had resolved.

However, Judge Tsalamandris accepted a psychiatrist’s opinion that the worker suffered from chronic PTSD symptoms and traumatisation features directly attributable to the circumstances of the incident.

Learnings for Employers

  • Major incidents and even near misses can have a significant effect on a person’s wellbeing, in particular their mental health.
  • Employers need to manage their critical risks in order to prevent major incidents and ultimately prosecution and litigation.