Université du Québec à Montréal, Département des sciences juridiques, c.p. 8888, Succursale Centre Ville, Montréal H3C3P8, Québec, firstname.lastname@example.org
Workers in Québec have the right to compensation if they become incapable of working because of illness attributable to a work accident or considered to be an occupational disease. When the aetiology of disease is controversial, as in the case of many musculo-skeletal disorders, or when the existence of a disease is questioned by the medical establishment, as in the case of fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivities syndrome, and sick building syndrome, it becomes difficult to access economic support from workers’ compensation systems in the event of disability. In this chapter we examine workers’ compensation appeal cases in Québec with regards to these illnesses. After making the distinction between illness that is made to seem controversial by medico-legal arguments as opposed to illnesses that are actually controversial in the medical community, the article examines case law concerning each type of illness and obstacles to compensation that are specific to each illness. The Court of Appeal has ordered the workers’ compensation appeal tribunals to compensate when proof in a given case shows that it is more probable than not that working conditions or a work accident triggered the illness, even though no consensus exists in the scientific community with regard to that illness. As a result, access to compensation for fibromyalgia and, to a lesser extent, for Multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome, has been slightly less difficult. The article concludes with a discussion of the effects of the stringent criteria applied by the appeal tribunal on the workers suffering from a controversial illness and a reminder that workers and their families pay the price when compensation is denied because of controversy.
Workers in Québec have the right to compensation if they become incapable of working because of illness attributable to a work “accident” or considered to be an “occupational disease”. When the aetiology of disease is controversial, as in the case of many musculo-skeletal disorders, or when the existence of a disease is questioned by the medical establishment, as in the case of chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivities syndrome (MCSS), and sick building syndrome, it becomes difficult to access economic support from workers’ compensation systems in the event of disability. In this chapter we will examine the workers’ compensation appeal cases in Québec, with regards to these illnesses, looking at the different facets of controversy with particular attention on gender issues surrounding compensation claims for these illnesses.
This paper draws on traditional legal analysis of caselaw and also relies on caselaw as a source of information about the behaviour of the different actors in the compensation system (Lippel 2002). It is also informed by interview data drawn from a qualitative study of the effects of the compensation process on workers health (Lippel et al, 2005). 85 injured workers (41 women and 44 men) were interviewed individually with regard to this question and the medico-legal controversies were at the heart of many of their stories. Among these workers were women who suffered from controversial illnesses in the strict sense: fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome, and several workers, mostly women and some men, who suffered from different types of musculo-skeletal disorders.
The first part of this paper describes workers’ compensation legislation and its impact on behaviour of the different actors. In this highly polarised context, actors can actively promote controversy with regard to illnesses that are not in themselves really controversial. The second part concentrates on compensation claims for illnesses known to be controversial either with regard to their existence, their cause or their consequences.
Workers’ Compensation as context for examining controversial illness
The politico-legal environment in which claims are made
In Québec, as in other Canadian provinces, workers who become ill because of their work may seek compensation from the workers’ compensation board, (the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail or CSST), and if the board concludes that disability is attributable to an “employment injury” they will receive 90% of their net salary for the duration of their disability and other benefit if they remain permanently disabled, including access to vocational rehabilitation.
Contrary to European countries such as the Netherlands (Pennings, 2002), Canada has no universal disability insurance covering either temporary or permanent disability. In the case of temporary disability, Employment Insurance benefits, are available to workers who have contributed to the EI scheme for a sufficient number of hours. Those eligible need show they are unable to work for medical reasons and they will then receive 55% of their gross salary for a maximum of fifteen weeks. Those who have contributed to the Québec or Canada pension plans may be eligible for economic support in the case of total disability but partial disability is not covered by the social insurance (non means-tested) safety net unless it falls within workers’ compensation coverage. For many, particularly those who develop long term disability, workers’ compensation becomes the only source of income support available and for these people, the stakes are high when recognition of their illness is at issue.
Workers’ compensation coverage varies from province to province. The vast majority of workers’ are covered in Québec and British Columbia, but less than 70% of Ontario employees are eligible for workers’ compensation benefits, and many jobs traditionally occupied by women, like teaching and work in the financial sector, are not covered by workers’ compensation in Ontario. Some form of sickness benefits through insurance are available to 50% of the Canadian salaried workforce, but only 14% of temporary employees and 17% of part-time employees have access to complementary insurance benefits, while 58% of full time workers have access to these benefits (Marshall 2003, Table 2).
Given that every workers’ compensation system is different, this article will focus on the Québec system, and it is important to note that rules may differ in other jurisdictions in Canada.
Legal framework and burden of proof: scientific certitude and compensation board culture
In Québec, workers must prove on a balance of probabilities that their work, or a work accident, was a contributing cause of their illness. They must also prove that their illness is totally disabling, to access full income benefits, or has left them partially disabled, in which case they will receive compensation for lost earning capacity. In the legislative language, “‘employment injury’ means an injury or a disease arising out of or in the course of an industrial accident, or an occupational disease, including a recurrence, relapse or aggravation”. Some illnesses may be triggered by an accident, as in cases of fibromyalgia that develop after initial trauma. Other illnesses develop directly because of working conditions. The Act identifies occupational illnesses that are presumed to be work related (AIAOD s. 29 and Annex 1), and permits workers to claim for illnesses that are not listed, if they can show they were caused by work and are either «characteristic of that work» or related to «risks peculiar to that work» (AIAOD s.30).
Although Québec law provides that the CSST is bound by the opinion of the treating physician regarding most medical issues including diagnosis, degree of disability and treatment, both the CSST and the employer can contest any of these opinions, and medico-legal controversies are prevalent not only in the case of controversial diseases but in many cases where injury is more obvious. Litigation surrounding all workers’ compensation issues, but particularly medico-legal issues, has been on the increase since the 1990’s because employer premiums which fund the system are now directly linked to costs of compensation for individual workers. As a result, a new “industry” has developed around workers’ compensation litigation and many medical experts, consultants and lawyers now make their living contesting workers’ claims for compensation.
Legally, workers have to prove that it is more probable than not that they are 1.suffering from an “illness”; 2. contracted because of a work accident or in the course of employment; 3. that the illness can be ascribed to employment risks or is peculiar to their work, in the case of occupational disease and 4. that the illness is disabling. Legal culture and the courts are clear that the worker need only prove these elements on a balance of probabilities, yet in science and to some extent in medicine there is a strong tradition relying on principles of scientific certitude. Because doctors and scientific literature play an important role in the adjudication process, it often happens that compensation boards and even appeal tribunals import exigencies that are inappropriate in a legal context, exacting of workers levels of certainty that are inappropriate, approaching 99% certitude when 50%+1 is the traditional burden of proof (Cranor, 1993; Jasanoff, 1995). In cases of civil liability, the Supreme Court of Canada has clearly stated that plaintiffs in civil law need only prove causation is more probable than not, (Snell, 1990). This approach is often strongly resisted by compensation boards whose dominant culture is medical, and medical experts who testify in appeal cases still feel they can recommend claim denial if scientific uncertainty surrounds the issues raised in the case. This culture shock between the medical and legal communities often gets played out in a context in which the person who is ill, and who is the least able to invest in litigation, has to invest money, time and energy in order to access compensation, as it is often only in appeal that the appropriate standard of proof is applied.
In order to better understand controversial illnesses in the context of workers’ compensation litigation the first step is to pinpoint where the controversy lies. Sometimes the only controversy is that regarding causation; there is no contest that the worker is disabled by a recognized illness, the only question is whether work or a work accident caused the illness, as in the case of many musculo-skeletal disorders. In other cases, not only does the compensation authority question causation, but they also may question disability and even the existence of the illness itself, as in the case of multiple chemical sensitivities and, until recently, fibromyalgia.
Creating controversy: Repetitive strain injury and other musculo-skeletal disorders (MSD’s)
One of the most important medico-legal controversies in the last twenty years is that surrounding musculo-skeletal disorders associated with repetitive work. Often referred to as RSI, an umbrella term including most MSD’s, these health problems have been increasing all over the industrialised world. Québec legislation actually presumes that certain musculo-skeletal disorders (tendonitis, tenosynovitis and bursitis) are caused by repetitive work, yet employer medico-legal teams have succeeded in instilling the idea that these diseases are controversial, instilling doubt not only with regard to issues surrounding causation but in some cases attacking the legitimacy of the illnesses themselves, by alluding to the idea that the illness is the product of «mass neurosis». In the words of a medical expert working with Canada Post
«We find here the same mass neurosis as in Australia characterized by a mutual interactive influence among workers as well as personal physicians, favouring the propagation of ideas, concepts and dogmas which are only hypothetical and not proven and which on the contrary glorify victimization and are thus detrimental to society and the worker.»(trans. Messing, 1998, p. 93, quoting Canakis, 1994).
In three1994 test cases, Canada Post contested claims brought by workers doing highly repetitive work and in two of these, succeeded in convincing the Commission d’appel en matière de lésions professionnelles (CALP), the appeal tribunal in Québec at that time, that in two of the three cases (those brought by two women) that the injury was not caused by work. One decision of over 400 pages relied on epidemiological data almost to the exclusion of legal principles, to conclude that repetitive work in itself was not a cause of the workers’ disease, regardless of the legislative presumption to the contrary. The Canada Post medico-legal team then organised a conference where representatives and experts were presented with the successful medico-legal approach(Lippel et al, 1999). Then followed a big increase in employer disputes regarding such claims, and there is still a great deal of litigation surrounding claims, even those for illnesses presumed to be work-related.
The type of discourse alluding to mass neurosis or questioning work relatedness is particularly successful in cases brought forward by women. In a study of 314 appeal cases in Québec it was found that women workers seeking workers’ compensation benefits were less often successful than men both for illnesses presumed to be work related, such as tendonitis, and illnesses that were not covered by the legislative presumption, such as carpal tunnel syndrome (Lippel, 2003). These types of difficulties are not specific to Québec, and have been documented in English Canada (Kome, 1998, 71-99) and in Australia (Bohle et al, 2000). In Australia medical consultants still actively promote the controversial nature of musculo-skeletal disorders, offering their services to help contest claims1 (Lucire, 2003). The effect of these allegations, questioning the legitimacy of pain, is to undermine the credibility and honesty of the worker, and controversy surrounding these claims promotes further ill health (Reid et al, 1991). Nor are these types of difficulties new, on the contrary, they are often based on bias in the medical textbooks, sometimes dating back to the mid twentieth century, as in the case of Carpal tunnel syndrome (Dembe, 1996, pp. 69-77).
While it is possible that in a given case musculo-skeletal disorder such as tendonitis or carpal syndrome is not caused by work, when we talk about “controversial illnesses” these types of illnesses do not readily come to mind as the existence of the illnesses is not debated in the traditional medical community and many studies and meta-analyses have shown that the illnesses are often caused by work (Kuorinka & Forcier, 1995; Bernard, 1997). The CSST itself makes the prevention of musculo-skeletal disorders a priority and underlines that, in the year 2000, MSD’s were responsible for 40% of the costs of compensation and 38% of occupational injury(CSST, 2005).
If such “mainstream” illnesses can become the object of so much controversy, it is not surprising that claims for truly controversial illnesses are rarely accepted. Let’s now examine the situation of four such illnesses: fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome (MCSS) and sick-building syndrome.
What makes an illness controversial? When the medical establishment questions the existence of a given diagnosis, or the consequences of the illness, these positions will necessarily have an adverse impact on cases brought by workers afflicted by the illness who are claiming compensation. Sometimes it’s not the illness itself that is questioned, but the cause of the illness either in general, or in the specific case brought before the CSST. Finally, even in those cases where claims are accepted as being work-related, the degree of disability which would justify compensation may in itself be questioned. Acceptance of these claims is infrequent, and many claims are refused because of issues of scientific uncertainty.
The uncertainty itself has been recognized as a reason justifying a worker to have failed to claim within the prescribed delay of six months (Commission scolaire de Val d’Or et Moreau, 1999, a case of MCSS; Labbé, 1999, a case of chronic fatigue), and some claims have been accepted years after the initial manifestation of the health problem, particularly in cases of fibromyalgia (Fabris, 2004) but also for MCSS (Moreau, 2003). The controversial nature of the diagnosis, and the additional complexity associated with the controversy, have also served to justify the employer who had filed a contestation after the legal deadline (De Miranda, 2001).
Chronic fatigue syndrome
Some controversial illnesses have been a challenge for social security administrators responsible for disability pensions, such as the Québec or Canada pension plans, or welfare systems predicated on disability, but are essentially invisible to the workers’ compensation system, because there have been few claims attributing the illness to work or a work accident. This is the case for chronic fatigue syndrome, an illness that is recognized as a potential source of disability but whose cause is still largely unknown, although there appears to be some evidence that it can be triggered by trauma (Carruthers et al, 2003, pp. 9-10). Few judgements have been rendered by the appeal tribunal (la Commission d’appel en matière de lésions professionnelles (CALP) between 1985-1998, la Commission des lésions professionnelles (CLP) since 1998) concerning claims by workers suffering primarily from chronic fatigue syndrome, though some cases involved both fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue (C. H. Chaveau, 2000; Laliberté, 2002, Roger, 2003). Only one of the those claims was accepted, the case of woman who had initially suffered from back problems after a work accident. Her condition deteriorated and several specialists confirmed a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. A psychiatrist also concluded that the worker suffered from a major depression resulting from her condition of chronic fatigue syndrome, itself a consequence of the fibromyalgia and the CLP, in light of the strong evidence in the specific case, accepted the claim for all these diagnoses (Laliberté, 2002). In this case, five specialists (rhumatologists and physiatrists) had confirmed the diagnosis of fibromyalgia, two had confirmed the link between the initial fall and injury and the fibromyalgia, and a psychiatrist had confirmed the presence of chronic fatigue syndrome and depression, linking them both to her deteriorated physical condition attributable to the fibromyalgia. No evidence to the contrary was brought forward by the opposing parties and, given the absence of health problems prior to the accident, the tribunal concluded that on a balance of probabilities the fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue conditions constituted an aggravation of the initial injury, and ordered compensation.
The only other case of «chronic fatigue syndrome» to be accepted by the appeal tribunal was also associated with diagnoses of a psychiatric nature. In this case, a worker developed «chronic fatigue syndrome» and «typical depressive syndrome» while she was confronted with chronic stress at work associated with overwork clearly arising from cutbacks in the federal civil service where she was employed. Although the worker’s personality was raised as a possible cause of her disorder (she was evaluated by a psychiatrist to be a perfectionist), the tribunal held that objectively stressful working conditions, combined with the worker’s personality, led to the development of the disability. As the «thin skull rule» applies in workers’ compensation cases, the fact that the worker’s personality could have contributed to the development of the illness was not an obstacle to compensation. The tribunal concluded that the stressful working conditions justified compensation for an occupational disease related to risks peculiar to the worker’s employment. The worker’s claim was not aggressively contested in appeal, and some doubt remains as to the nature of her illness as the medical evidence in the specific case seems to suggest that burnout and chronic fatigue syndrome are synonymous. Without the evidence concerning the worker’s mental health, it seems clear this claim would not have been accepted(Laflamme, 2000).
The controversy surrounding fibromyalgia is perhaps the most visible of those we will examine. It has become particularly visible since the Québec Court of Appeal has had to intervene several times against administrative tribunal decisions concerning both car accident victims (Viger, 2000) and injured workers (Chiasson, 2002), decisions that had refused claims for compensation on the basis of the scientific uncertainty surrounding the diagnosis. The case law of the Court of Appeal is clear: when medical evidence and factual circumstances permit the tribunal to draw the conclusion that a work accident or a car accident probably caused the condition in the particular case, the fact that controversy persists in the medical community is not in itself a reason to set aside the opinion of the medical experts having supported the claim for compensation (Lippel et Fabris, 2003). Sophie Fabris examined the case law that followed the Appeal Court decisions and found that one of the two tribunals involved, the Tribunal administratif du Québec, responsible for appeals from the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ), the administrative body responsible for compensation of victims of car accidents, had until recently largely ignored the dicta of the Appeal Court, while the CLP, the administrative tribunal responsible for work-related injury, has followed the lead of the Court of Appeal and has now accepted several cases of fibromyalgia, where it was shown that the condition developed after either physical or psychological (Côté, 2001) trauma (Fabris, 2004).
Until recently (Radio-Canada, 2005), the Québec College of physicians and surgeons had taken a conservative position with regard to fibromyalgia, concluding that it could not be considered as a disabling disease unless other diagnoses also applied to the patient. Thus if psychological problems were diagnosed as well, fibromyalgia could be considered as disabling.(Fabris, 2004)
Although workers fare slightly better than injured car accident victims, people suffering from fibromyalgia can expect to face up to sophisticated legal teams and a battery of expert witnesses paid for by the employer and sometimes by the compensation board itself.
In other provinces, such as Nova Scotia, compensation boards have tried to get around their obligations to fibromyalgia patients by limiting their access to benefits through policy or regulation. In 2003, the Supreme Court of Canada held this approach to be in violation of the section 15 equality provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Nova Scotia, 2003), and no further “special arrangements” seem to have been developed with regard to this diagnosis.
Sick building syndrome
A variety of health problems are known to be associated with poor air quality, and illness can be ascribed to work if it can be shown that exposure to mold, micro-toxins, or low level chemical exposures in the workplace have caused a recognized illness. Symptoms vary, including gastro-intestinal problems, respiratory problems, sore throat, headaches and fatigue. Sick-building syndrome is one of the many illnesses associated with poor air quality, others include Multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome, rhinitis (Dallaire, 2003; Scott, 2003; Teixeira, 2003; Beaudet, 2004; Nguyen et al 1999 pp. 245-258), and “psycho-organic syndrome” (Nguyen et al 1999 pp. 245-258). Occupational asthma is a disease specifically targeted by Québec workers’ compensation legislation, but this disease falls outside the purview of this chapter as it is not deemed to be controversial.
Sick building syndrome has been recognized as a compensable illness in Québec (Laliberté, 1993), and occasionally workers have succeeded in accessing compensation, although the burden of proof is difficult to meet as decision makers require they exclude other causes of their illness, given that the diagnosis is considered to be a diagnosis by default, applicable only when no other illness can be identified. According to one case, cited with approval by Nguyen and colleagues (p.248), workers need not only prove that they have been diagnosed with sick building syndrome by a physician and that norms governing air quality have not been respected, they must provide evidence that the poor air quality caused their illness. This may not reflect the current case law as several decisions have insisted that violation of exposure levels is not necessary for compensation to be granted (Della Cioppa, 2001; Lemoy, 2003; Lippel, 2002a, pp. 318-320), although it is very difficult to convince the tribunal of a causal link when no excessive exposure can be identified. If other workers have also experienced debilitating symptoms this can strengthen the case, on the condition that there is actual evidence of this fact and not simply allegations without medical evidence (Grant-Fontaine, 2001, Nguyen, 1999, pp. 254-256).
The diagnosis of “sick building syndrome” makes accessing compensation more difficult because of the controversy surrounding the diagnosis itself. Thus when new evidence allowed a worker to specifically point at exposure to mold he was then able to prove he was suffering from an allergy to mold, and his claim, which had previously been refused, was then accepted (Université McGill, 2004). The workers who succeeded in accessing compensation for illness associated with poor air quality were those whose medical portrait included rhinitis (Teixeira, 2003; Beaudet, 2004) and those whose work environment had been shown either to be in violation of established norms (Beaudet, 2004) or undergoing a change (construction, painting, demolition, fire) at the time of the onset of their symptoms (Teixeira, 2003; Scott, 2003; Dallaire, 2003).
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome
Multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome has been defined in medical textbooks:
«The multiliple-chemical sensitivity (MCS) syndrome is a diagnosis that has increasingly been given to patients with a wide variety of symptoms that they attribute to exposure at very low levels to a number of commonly encountered chemicals. The syndrome usually begins after a well-defined environmental event, such as a reaction to a more clearly toxic dose of an organic solvent, pesticide, or respiratory irritant. Some cases of MCS begin as SBS. Affected persons commonly report symptoms such as fatigue, malaise, headache, dizziness, lack of concentration, memory loss, and “spaciness” – symptoms that overlap somewhat with those of other diagnoses of uncertain etiology, such as chronic fatigue syndrome. The pathogenesis of MCS is obscure, and no proven methods exist for its diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment. Case series suggesting a high prevalence of affective disorders indicate that psychological factors may play a role in causing MCS and/or in determining its severity; however, evidence does not support MCS as a purely psychogenic illness. A few studies of MCS patients suggest that the biologic mechanism of MCS may involve neurogenic inflammation of the nasal mucosa (as indicated by abnormal rhinolaryngoscopic findings) linked to central nervous system dysfunction...» (Braunwald et al, 2001, as cited in Moreau, 2002, par. 78).
Compensation was granted in a few decisions where the workers were diagnosed with MCSS, but in many of those claims MCSS itself was not recognized as a legitimate diagnosis, and occasionally workers were compensated for various forms of rhinitis (DeMiranda, 2001). In all cases where compensation was granted, exposure to a contaminant was proven and without such proof, the worker’s claim had little chance of succeeding (Gauthier, 2001).
The CLP has recognized a few claims for MCSS. In the case of Moreau, a technician in a chemistry lab of a high school, MCSS was recognized as a compensable disease 7 years after his withdrawal from work and 5 years after his initial compensation claim. The final favourable decision was rendered ten years from the moment when he first alerted his union as to his suspicions regarding the possible occupational cause of his health problems. The worker showed he’d been exposed to a variety of chemicals on a daily basis for over twenty years, that the conditions of that exposure were not always secure, and the evidence of at least seven physicians (including that of a toxicologist, an ear nose and throat specialist, and a psychiatrist) was before the tribunal (Moreau, 2002).
In the case of Lemoy, MCSS and specifically «rhinitis caused by chemical sensitivity» were the accepted diagnoses in a case where the chemical substances (particularly toluene) did not exceed the regulatory exposure limits but where it was made clear that the worker’s exposure to a low level of toluene had triggered her disease. The worker, a secretary in a printshop, brought forward clear evidence of exposure to toluene, a determining factor in the acceptance of her claim. Six doctors confirmed a diagnosis of MCSS or rhinitis caused by chemical sensitivity (Lemoy, 2003). This decision constitutes a breakthrough in that the CLP acknowledges that a medical controversy regarding the diagnosis of MCSS can no longer justify refusal of a claim given the clear instructions of the Court of Appeal in Chiasson, 2002.The tribunal explicitly sets aside previous caselaw that refused MCSS claims because of the controversial nature of the diagnosis. Caselaw until Lemoy set aside MCSS claims because of the controversy surrounding the diagnosis (Rolko, 1994, Vasseur 1998, Lippel, 2002a, p. 284).
The CSST itself has accepted cases including MCSS diagnoses prior to the intervention of the CLP. While there is no public access to information regarding these cases, appeals regarding specific aspects such as permanent disability (Serigraffiti inc, 2002) or access to rehabilitation (Carter, 2003) show that when exposure and medical evidence is solid some claims are accepted without litigation. The acceptance rate of such cases is impossible to determine as statistics on refusals by the CSST are not available.
Controversial consequences: What constitutes disability?
Even when compensation is awarded, claimants may still be considered able to work, and the challenges with which injured workers are confronted are not dissimilar to those encountered by claimants of disability pensions, although injured workers may have to face up to medico-legal teams of both the employer and the CSST, an often insurmountable burden. Caselaw rarely addresses this issue, but a study of fibromyalgia decisions (Fabris, 2004) has shown that doctors and decision makers rarely accept that that disease can be permanently disabling unless other diagnosed diseases are contributing to the worker’s disability.
This analysis of Québec case law leads us to conclude that it is extremely difficult to access workers’ compensation benefits in Québec for illnesses deemed to be controversial by the medical community, as the appeal tribunal is very demanding with regard to evidence. In those cases where compensation is granted, it is often after a very long struggle, as in the case of Moreau who finally obtained compensation more than a decade after he had initially alerted his union to problems with his health he believed to be associated with chemical exposure. Without a union or access to legal counsel and costly medical expertise it seems close to impossible to win compensation, and even in those cases where medical evidence is strong, it is rare to see compensation granted if the employer or the compensation board aggressively contests the claim. In most cases a large number of medical experts intervene, as appears from several judgments discussed. Interviews confirmed this; one worker reported to us that she had consulted twenty specialists for a case of MCSS. Aside from exposing workers to a multiplicity of examinations and tests, an experience often associated with controversial illness regardless of legal issues, arguments over the worker’s credibility and legitimacy of the claim are brought to the forefront in a legal context, and can exacerbate disability associated with the initial illness, including mental health problems associated with chronic pain and disablement (Reid et al, 1991). The fact that these diseases are being discussed in a legal context can also make them even more controversial, leading the worker spiralling into a vicious circle where her insistence on the legitimacy of her claim becomes in itself an argument to prove that it is psychogenic2 (Mendelson, 1995, 2002; Brunner, 2003).
Claimants interviewed report on the stress associated with making a claim and going into appeal. While this is true of all appellants (Lippel et al, 2005), those suffering from controversial illnesses were particularly marked by the process. A worker who tried to obtain compensation for MCSS told of the imbalance of power in the courtroom: the worker, alone with her union representative, confronted by the employer and its lawyers and experts as well as the CSST and its lawyers and experts. Accessing the workplace to obtain evidence as to the nature of exposure is difficult in itself, while obtaining support from a competent occupational hygienist is costly and beyond the means of most workers. Both claimants with MCSS eventually developed psychiatric problems that exacerbated their disability and made it even more difficult to obtain compensation for the initial physical problem.
A woman suffering from fibromyalgia after an initial diagnosis of back pain was told by several of her treating physicians not to inform the compensation board of her condition as they feared her benefits for back pain would be cut off. In her case, this turned out to be a successful strategy as she surprised the employer and the compensation board with the fibromyalgia diagnosis only during the appeal hearing concerning other issues surrounding the claim. This eventually led to an out of court settlement. Nonetheless it is ironic that the only way this worker thought she could obtain adequate support from the compensation board was to leave them in the dark as to the true nature of her illness.
While the workers we met who were suffering from controversial illnesses were mostly women, decisions regarding MCSS, chronic fatigue syndrome, and sick building syndrome were not sufficiently numerous to justify a gender based analysis. Both men and women were claimants, and mostly all claimants failed to access compensation. We do know that appeals concerning musculo-skeletal disorders are less likely to be accepted when the appellant is a woman (Lippel, 2003) and while female claimants for fibromyalgia are more numerous than male claimants, the small number of male claimants made it difficult to measure gender differences in success rates (Fabris, 2004).
Difficulties discussed here are neither exclusive to Québec, nor are they exclusive to the workers’ compensation arena. Insurance companies can set up obstacles to compensation and have been known to target claimants suffering from fibromyalgia by having recourse to private detectives to observe their behaviour and perhaps question their disability (Lippel, 2005, note 22).
In the context of civil law litigation, controversy in the scientific arena has been the subject of enormous debate, particularly in the United States, where the Supreme Court, in the early 1990’s, forced judges into the role of scientific gatekeepers charged with keeping so-called ‘junk science’ out of the court room. The result has been a systemic exclusion of evidence that could otherwise help plaintiffs, as the plaintiffs are those whose cases suffer when something is not proven and, as Jasanoff points out “Scientists are [...] at greater liberty to accept a verdict of ‘not proven’ with regard to given hypothesis or question” (Jasanoff, 2005, p. S52). Analogies with the American context must be used sparingly because there “the courts have an obligation to make whole the uncared-for victims of a robust culture of risk-taking” (Jasanoff, 2005, p. S57), while Canadians tend to rely more on the regulatory framework to protect them from dangerous substances and practices. Nevertheless, scientific uncertainty in Canada, as in the United States, does not exist in a vacuum:
“The scientific knowledge that the law needs for its purposes is frequently unavailable until the legal process itself creates the incentives for generating it; nor are methods that technical communities regard as valid necessarily at hand until interested litigants seek out the expertise to help them win their case.” (Jasanoff, 2005, p. S54)
Workers’ compensation in Canada has often served as a forum where new risks in the workplace have been identified, and new obligations for prevention have been developed. Controversy in the scientific community serves to keep controversial illnesses out of the compensation arena. It’s often forgotten that this doesn’t make the illness go away; it simply transfers the cost of the illness to the workers and their families and to taxpayers who assume the cost of Medicare and social assistance.
The author wishes to acknowledge the financial support of the Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la société et la culture (FQRSC). Research assistance for the preparation of this article was provided by Sophie Fabris, Marie-Claire Lefebvre, Geneviève St. Georges and Audrey Pederian.
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Act Respecting Industrial Accidents and Occupational Diseases, R.S.Q. c. A-3.001 (AIAOD).
Labbé et corporation Northern Village Kuujjuak et CSST, CLP 111146-01B-9903, November 15th, 1999, René Ouellet, (deadline extended).
Labbé et corporation Northern Village Kuujjuak et CSST, CLP 111146-01B-9903-2, April 9th, 2001, Jean-Maurice Laliberté (refused).
Laflamme et D.R.H.C. Direction Travail, CLP 141372-07-0006, November 15th, 2000, Denis Rivard (accepted).
Laliberté et Top Billard de Laval inc. (fermée), CLP 144600-61-0008, 9th of August, 2002, Fernard Poupart (accepted).
Roger et Équifax Canada et CSST, C.L.P.E. 2003LP-214, October 20th, 2003, Lucie Landriault, (refused).
1 http://www.lucire.com.au/, consulted on September 29, 2005.
2 In an interview with a compensation system manager from outside Quebec we were told that the quest for confirmation of the existence of the physical origin of an illness (chronic fatigue syndrome/ME) in the context of a compensation claim was in itself a symptom of the psychogenic nature of the illness.