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Stress, burnout raise worker safety concerns

Stressed worker

Longer work hours, higher demands and understaffing have made stress and burnout risk factors for employers, and experts say such mental health issues may be making workplaces less safe. 

“When there’s pressure for production … and things have to get done because there’s a deadline, people may cut corners on safety,” said Paul Landsbergis, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn.

Workplace stress is affecting many industries, including construction, warehousing, health care, transportation and manufacturing, where injuries can run the gamut from amputations and falls to poor ergonomics and muscle sprains, all of which have seen mental stress as a contributing factor, experts say.

An average of 65% of U.S. workers surveyed annually from 2019 to 2021 characterized work as being a “significant” source of stress, according to the American Psychological Organization.

Under stress, workers “do things in a hurry, like not put the guard back on the machine, and that’s a way in which accidents and injuries can happen,” said Mr. Landsbergis, who also advises the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

John Dony, Itasca, Illinois-based vice president of workplace strategy for the National Safety Council, said stress is often a factor when studying root causes of accidents. 

“Stress and fatigue, particularly at extreme levels, can cause irritability, lack of focus, increased reaction time and decreased capacity for analysis and decision-making,” he said. “All of these symptoms can have indirect and direct effects on safety and incidents, and typically turn up as underlying causal factors when organizations analyze events for lessons learned.” 

Even poor ergonomics have been connected to stress, said Jonathan Rosen, an industrial hygiene consultant with AJ Rosen & Associates LLC in Schenectady, New York.

Mr. Rosen pointed to the Washington Department of Labor and Industries’ case against Inc., which is accused of overburdening workers with quotas and surveillance, leading to ergonomic injuries. Amazon contends it has safety programs in place. 

“These are psychological stressors that can cause people terrible physical stress,” Mr. Rosen said. 

Psychological stress as the injury itself is also showing up in workers compensation claims (see related story below).

Experts say the connection to safety is clear and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in May launched a web portal to provide employers with information on stress, which it says is affecting many industries.

“As we recognize stress, increasingly and especially in the last several years, OSHA wants to make sure that employees are protected,” said Daniel Birnbaum, an associate in the Chicago office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, which represents employers. 

However, employers are most likely shielded from citations for stress, Mr. Birnbaum said. “At this point, it would be very difficult for OSHA to engage in any sort of enforcement action against companies based on workplace stress.”

“There’s no specific standard that applies,” he said, adding that OSHA would have to use the catch-all general duty clause to fine an employer for an unsafe work environment, which “would be an uphill battle” for the agency. 

Mr. Dony said employers that recognize the connection between stress and accidents will have a better chance of avoiding incidents. 

“It’s important not to think of these factors as the fault of the human. Employers must design systems that address these factors and/or create capacity to fail safely when physical and psychosocial risk factors do come into play,” he said. 

Les Kertay, Chattanooga, Tennessee-based senior vice president for behavioral health with workers compensation services provider Axiom Medical Consulting LLC, said employers will not be able to remove all stressors — and he said that’s not a bad thing because stress can keep workers alert to dangers. 

Yet, Mr. Kertay said, “at a certain point, you get stressed enough that you start paying more attention to internal stimuli, like how you’re feeling on the inside, and you begin to pay less attention to the outside world. That makes you more accident prone. As stress increases, we tend to be less attentive to our environment.” 

Courts compare workers with peers when adjudicating burnout claims

Several states accept workers compensation claims for stress, yet such mental claims are often denied due to one caveat: The stressor must be greater than that which workers in similar positions face. 

Two recent cases in New York highlighted the complexity. 

In case No. 535539, decided Aug. 3 by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, Third Department, an insurance company auditor quit her job and was hospitalized following a stress-related incident at work. The appeals court ruled in favor of the employer, writing that the “claimant’s peers were subject to the same daily and hourly quotas for completion of audits.”

Similarly, the same court on July 20 in case No. 535458 ruled against a bus driver who claimed in 2020 that he suffered “work-related stress and mental health injuries as a result of his exposure to COVID-19, the COVID-19-related death and illness of co-workers, the conditions of his employment and his treatment by co-workers and passengers.” 

The court, writing that “mental injuries caused by work-related stress are compensable if the claimant can establish that the stress that caused the injury was greater than that which other similarly situated workers experienced in the normal work environment,” said all bus drivers faced the same risks and stress in the pandemic. 

Michael Gaston, Long Beach, California-based attorney with law firm Cipolla, Bhatti, Hoyal & Roach, said he’s seen an uptick in stress claims. 

“Workplace stress or being upset at work is not a psychological injury,” Mr. Gaston said. “The most important thing in workers comp is predominant cause; what that means is, assuming that there is psychological disability, the doctor’s opinion has to be that at least 51% of it is caused by work.” 

“It’s possible that whatever is causing them stress at work may be the predominant cause,” he said, adding, “but it’s also possible that what’s happening at work may be lighting up something (the worker) had before, or the worker has been carrying a lot of psychological distress and it was what happened at work that pushed him over. That isn’t predominant cause.” 

Steve Bennett, Washington-based vice president for workers compensation programs and counsel for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, said claims alleging stress, pervasive in many industries, need “strong guardrails.” 

“Claims should only be for what would be considered legitimate workplace injuries and we certainly do not believe that a no-fault system could survive economically if ‘I have stress at work’ claims are going to be covered,” he said.

Les Kertay, Chattanooga, Tennessee-based senior vice president for behavioral health with workers compensation services provider Axiom Medical Consulting LLC, said comp claims struggle because stress is not a medical condition.

“Burnout is what happens when you are excessively stressed with insufficient resources to cope with it over a long period of time,” he said. “That’s partly internal, partly external. It’s still not a diagnosable condition.”