Dramatic jump in number of Winnipeg bus drivers on stress leave in 2017, WCB data says

Information obtained by the CBC from the Workers Compensation Board shows a sharp spike in the number of Winnipeg Transit drivers who are on paid sick leave because of exposure to traumatic or stressful events — 14 in 2017, up from two the year before and three in 2015.

Change in reporting post-traumatic stress came into effect in 2016, Workers Compensation Board says

Amalgamated Transit Union local 1505 president Aleem Chaudhary says he's not surprised by a sharp jump in the reported number of bus drivers off on sick leave because of stress and trauma. (Chris Stanton/CBC)

The number of Winnipeg transit drivers off work because of stress on the job spiked sharply last year, according to data from the Manitoba Workers Compensation Board.

According to figures released to CBC News by the WCB, 14 bus drivers were on sick leave in 2017 because of exposure to traumatic or stressful events. That number is a dramatic jump from two in 2016, three in 2015 and two in 2014.

Aleem Chaudhary, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union local 1505, says he's not surprised. 

He says an increasing number of drivers are being threatened on the job or assaulted, and that is causing stress to skyrocket. He believes the numbers are actually a lot higher than what's reflected in the WCB data.

"I mean, 14 is just the number of accepted claims. We aren't talking about the ones that are in the system waiting to be adjudicated or those that are not accepted as far as psychological injuries," said Chaudhary.

'Greater move to accepting these claims'

From 2014 to 2018, the average number of paid sick leave days for drivers on leave in the category of "exposure to traumatic or stressful events" was 46.5 days, according to Dwight Doell, the director of prevention services at the WCB.

Doell says a presumptive clause for post-traumatic stress came into effect in 2016.

Previously, the onus was on the applicant to prove they were suffering from stress and unable to do their job. Doell says there is now more openness to put in these types of claims and a likelihood that they will be accepted. 

"Since 2016, it's considered 'yes' unless you prove 'no.' There is a reverse onus, a greater move to accepting these claims. I don't know if we can say that is why there was a spike in the 14 cases, though," said Doell.

See a March 2017 night-shift ride-along with two Winnipeg Transit drivers:

CBC News rode along with two Winnipeg Transit drivers to find out what it's like to work a night shift driving a bus. 3:10

Chaudhary has his own theory. 

"More people accept the fact having a psychological injury is not a shameful thing," he said.

"It's more acceptable in society today to say, 'Yes, I have that injury,' and not be ashamed, which you shouldn't be. It's not a physical injury, it's a psychological injury."

It's not known how much the claims for stress leave are costing the city of Winnipeg.

City says many factors may explain spike

A spokesperson for the city said there are a number of factors that may directly and indirectly contribute to fluctuations in the number of WCB claims.

Those include better recognition in the medical community of the signs and symptoms of injuries, whether physical or non-physical; increasing awareness by staff and management of signs and symptoms to watch for; and a broadening of the definition of what represents an acceptable claim by organizations such as the WCB.

A Winnipeg Transit bus displays a rest in peace message in February 2017, in honour of the funeral for slain operator Irvine Jubal Fraser, whose badge number was 521. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

The bottom line, says Chaudhary, is that bus drivers experience stress in many cases because they are afraid for their own safety and the safety of their passengers.

The WCB injury report also shows assaults and violent acts by a person have also jumped dramatically — 14 in 2017, up from eight in 2016, seven in 2015 and six in 2014.

There have been several high-profile attacks on Winnipeg Transit drivers recently, most notably the killing of driver Irvine Jubal Fraser on Feb. 14, 2017.

A second-degree murder charge has been laid in that case.

Chaudhary says the union has been pushing for more safety measures to be put in place.

New safety initiatives, city says

The City of Winnipeg says it has responded with a number of initiatives, including a pilot project to test bus operator safety shields, the formation of a transit advisory committee, and a new safety training program for drivers and managers.

Inspectors have also been assigned at set strategic locations to assist operators and passengers.

Chaudhary says despite the city's measures, a number of young drivers are still choosing to leave the job because they don't feel safe. He says two or three transit drivers are leaving every week.

"Drivers have heard people say 'I am going to kill you.' They make the sign of the pistol and say 'I am going to shoot you,'" he said.

"It adds up over time, especially when you are newer on the job. Psychologically it takes its toll on you.… You might not think of it at the time but it does."

Watch Chaudhary explain why young drivers are leaving

Amalgamated Transit Union local 1505 president Aleem Chaudhary says he's not surprised by a sharp jump in the reported number of bus drivers off on sick leave because of stress and trauma. 0:36

The city disputes the claim that drivers are resigning because they don't feel safe.

A spokesperson says when an operator quits, they are asked to put forward information concerning their reason to leave.

To date, the spokesperson said, the city is "not aware of any drivers resigning due to safety concerns."

About the Author

Marianne Klowak

Reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Marianne has always had a passion for seeking the truth. She began her career anchoring and reporting at CKX Brandon. From there she worked in both TV news and current affairs at CBC Saskatoon. For the past 25 years Marianne has worked in Winnipeg, both in radio and television. She was formerly a teacher in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.