On Feb. 12, the Ohio House of Representatives passed a bill 74-22 that would provide workers’ compensation for peace officers, paid and volunteer firefighters, and emergency medical workers who get post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the course of their lifesaving work. The legislation is now before the state Senate and, should it pass, would create an exception to the state’s workers’ compensation law that currently only provides benefits for work-related mental health problems in very narrow circumstances.

Psychiatric injury and illness

Ohio – like several other, but not all, states – normally does not allow workers’ compensation coverage for mental health injuries arising out of employment. For example, an employee could develop depression, anxiety or PTSD from working in a slaughterhouse, funeral home or a high-stress production floor, or even as a surgeon or pilot. In Ohio, these mental diagnoses would not qualify the employee for workers’ compensation.

Currently, Ohio law only provides two exceptions to this rule, allowing coverage when:

  • An eligible physical injury or illness caused the mental diagnosis.
  • It arose from forced sexual conduct under threat of physical injury.

Characteristics of PTSD

The House Bill Analysis cites the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) as its source when explaining what PTSD is and the symptoms it causes. It is a very complex psychiatric illness, but in basic terms, it may be triggered after someone witnesses or goes through a “shocking, scary, or dangerous event,” according to the NIH.

Symptoms can begin shortly after the incident or years later and may include flashbacks with resulting physical reactions (like elevated heart rate or sweating), nightmares or frightening thoughts. People may have trouble with anger, stress, sleeping, memory, guilt and other issues. They may avoid places and people that trigger traumatic thoughts, resulting in isolation.

For an official diagnosis, the illness must last at least one month and interfere with work or with relationships. Sometimes victims recover and sometimes the condition can be chronic and lifelong.

First responders experience more trauma than most other workers

It is not difficult to understand why an emergency responder is at risk of work-related PTSD. An October 2019 article in The Washington Post describes the story of a Connecticut state trooper who responded to the Sandy Hook massacre and developed PTSD as a result. Because trays of pizza were out for lunch at the school at the time, the officer now has flashbacks when he smells it.

But the article also explains that police, EMTs, firefighters and other first responders also get PTSD from the everyday trauma they experience on the job day after day – sometimes from cumulative trauma. Even the Sandy Hook responder described that day as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Those who advocate for injured workers in their quest for fair compensation for occupational injury or sickness – especially those who risk their lives for all of us daily – will watch this bill with keen interest.