Thunder Bay

'We see terrible things': WSIB budgets for Thunder Bay emergency services to increase by $1M

Emergency services in Thunder Bay are putting more money aside for Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) claims, particularly related to mental wellness.

PTSD is presumed to be a workplace injury for first responders

Thunder Bay police and firefighters respond to a motor vehicle collision. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

Emergency services in Thunder Bay are putting more money aside for Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) claims, particularly related to mental wellness.

The WSIB allocations for the Thunder Bay Police Service, Thunder Bay Fire Rescue and Superior North EMS combine for a $1-million increase in the proposed 2020 city budget.

'We see some terrible things'

Leaders of the emergency services leaders identify mental health, and particularly post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as a major reason for the rise.

Superior North EMS chief Wayne Gates said PTSD is having a significant impact.

"We see some terrible things out there," Gates said. 

"In our area, we have serious drug problems, we have a high homicide rate. We have many challenges in our area and our paramedics and emergency responders deal with that on a regular basis."

Proposed Thunder Bay emergency services WSIB budgets

  • Thunder Bay Police Service: $873,600, an increase of $619,900
  • Superior North EMS: $938,900, an increase of $493,000
  • Thunder Bay Fire Rescue: $350,000, an increase of $100,000

In 2016, provincial legislation was enacted that listed PTSD as a presumptive workplace injury for first responders, who only need to prove their occupation and have been diagnosed by a psychiatrist to qualify for WSIB. 

Acting fire chief Greg Hankkio said the department has been proactive over the last number of years to have preventative measures, including a road to mental readiness program and resilient mind training. Firefighters are also participating in a study with Lakehead University researchers.

Thunder Bay acting fire chief Greg Hankkio said more people are reporting workplace mental health injuries and talking about mental health in the workplace. (Matt Vis/CBC)

"Just the mental stress alone of being in a precarious situation in a structural fire, as an example, can have an impact on somebody," Hankkio said.

"It's really quite a vast array of calls. A lot of it is the unexpected or the unknown. A lot of times a lot of information isn't made available and in some cases it's a shock factor when you get there depending on what you have to deal with."

'Night and day'

But Hankkio said people are more willing to report mental health injuries, and talk about mental health in the workplace.

Each of the departments have different resources available to help their members.

Gerald Duffy, the critical incident and peer support coordinator for Thunder Bay police, works with officers to help lessen the effects of stressful and intense calls.

Duffy, who has been in policing for 16 years, said there has been a "night and day" change, even in the last few years, of how mental wellness is viewed on the job.

"The old mentality of 'push it down, suck it up,' as the expression goes, we've realized that's not the healthiest way to address it," Duffy said.

Police Chief Sylvie Hauth said there were as many as 20 officers off on leave at the same time last fall, but the police service has since implemented a return-to-work specialist position.

"That has already had an impact in terms of our numbers and ensuring that our officers are receiving the support, not only while being off, but helping them return to work whether it's on a modified position or on a full-time basis," Hauth said.

"We've reduced almost by half those numbers being off into the new year."