A person with environmental sensitivities may have enjoyed a successful career until their sensitivities appeared. But because environmental sensitivities are often not recognized, or their very existence is negated or delegitimized, it is not uncommon for a person with this medical condition to lose their job. This should not be the case.
Filing a CSST claim (workers’ compensation)
When a serious work exposure brings about environmental sensitivities resulting in a person’s inability to work, that person can file a claim with the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité au travail (CSST), Quebec’s occupational health and safety board. Two conditions must be met: (1) It must concern a worker as defined by law (the person must not be self-employed), and (2) the person must provide a medical certificate attesting the condition. Over the past several years in Quebec, the Commission des lésions professionnelles (CLP), the administrative tribunal that hears appeals of CSST decisions, has awarded the right to CSST compensation to at least ten workers who developed environmental sensitivities linked to exposures—usually to solvents—in the workplace. These were hard-won victo- ries, requiring sufferers to vigorously fight for several years before their rights were finally recognized. These cases illustrate that in law, as in medicine, it is not necessary to know everything about a disease before recognizing its effects on an individual.
However, if workplace exposure causes symptoms without rendering the person unable to work, the most appropriate course of action is to request an accommodation by virtue of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, or for people working in areas under federal jurisdiction, by virtue of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
It should be noted that people whose incapacitation has been recognized by the CSST cannot in- voke the right to a reasonable accommodation once they return to work. The courts have ruled that in the case of a work-related accident or an occupational disease, the measures available concer- ning accommodations are limited to those stipulated in the Act Respecting Industrial Accidents and Occupational Disease.
Example: A claim accepted by the Commission des lésions profession- nelles (CLP),
the administrative tribunal that hears appeals of CSST decisions.
For illustrative purposes, the following is a case where a worker occupying the post of electro- nics technician was repeatedly exposed to an adhesive and accelerant used to glue parts toge- ther in a factory that manufactures security products. When a gluing station was temporarily moved near the worker’s workstation, she immediately began to experience vertigo, dizziness, headaches, facial spasms and pain in her chest. She went to the emergency room by ambulance where she was seen by a neurologist who first noted that her “symptoms suggest anxiety or the onset of anxious depression.” Unfortunately, this kind of psychologization of the symptoms of people with environmental sensitivities is commonly done by doctors who know little about the illness. Ultimately after a thorough examination and more in-depth tests at the hospital, the final diagnoses made by the neurologist and then by the worker’s physician were much
more accurate. She was diagnosed with cephalgia, spasms on the left side of the body, neuropathic pain and left brachialgia (pain in the arm), all of which are symptoms linked directly to the exposure to adhesive and accelerant fumes. She returned to work after a one- month leave period. Due to the cooperation of her managers, her workstation was moved far from where parts were being glued together. Furthermore, whenever the adhesive was to be used elsewhere in the factory, she would be informed and could
therefore avoid the area, which allowed her to minimize her symptoms. The migraines that were sometimes triggered by the fumes were controlled with medication.
At the Commission des lésions professionnelles (CLP) hearing, in accordance with the Act Respecting Occu- pational Health and Safety, the employer was required to provide the tribunal with the Material Safety Data Sheet of the products—highly toxic solvents—the worker had been exposed to. The employer requested that the claim be rejected on the grounds that no other person exposed to the solvents had complained of simi- lar symptoms. However, the CLP tribunal ruled in favour of the worker because she had no prior history of anxiety or depression, and also because her testimony concerning the exposure to the solvents as being the cause of her health pro- blems was quite convincing.