Psychological Injuries Require “Abnormal Working Conditions” in PA Workers’ Comp

Under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, physical injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome, low back strain or a fractured arm, are treated differently than emotional/psychological injuries, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or anxiety. To obtain workers’ comp benefits in PA for emotional/psychological injuries, the injury must result from an “abnormal working condition,” rather than a person’s subjective response to a normal working condition. What constitutes an “abnormal working condition” under Pennsylvania workers’ comp law varies depending on the job at issue and is the subject of many court decisions.

Recently, the courts in PA have been very demanding in what constitutes an “abnormal working condition.” For some professions, such as firemen, policemen and other emergency first responders, the courts have set the threshold extremely high, finding very little in those jobs could possibly be “abnormal.” Essentially, some jobs should expect the unexpected, the courts seem to say.

Typically, harassment or bad behavior by a boss will not reach the level of an “abnormal working condition.” In fact, one of my favorite quotes on this subject comes from a 1996 decision of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, “In assessing whether work conditions are abnormal, we must recognize that the work environment is a microcosm of society. It is not a shelter from rude behavior, obscene language, incivility, or stress.”

With this in mind, a recent decision by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, Community Empowerment Association v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Porch), decided November 25, 2008, was a pleasant surprise. In this case, the Claimant was a victim of both sexual and religious harassment, and suffered emotional and psychological injury as a result. A Claim Petition was filed, and was subsequently granted by a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ). On appeal, the Court found these facts sufficient to rise to the level of an “abnormal working condition.”

While emotional and psychological injuries sometimes have a more difficult burden of proof than a typical physical injury under PA workers’ compensation law, an injured worker should be aware that such claims can still sometimes be successful. As with any work injury, it is critical to consult immediately with an attorney experienced in Pennsylvania workers’ compensation.

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