Suicide Levels for U.S. Workers are up 34 Percent. What Can Employers Do To Help?

This post was sparked by some recent news events, and a podcast I follow.  Of course, given the title of this blog, I’ll have to add my workers’ compensation law spin on it at the end.  You might think that workers’ compensation coverage does not apply to suicides, but that is not always the case.  Obviously though, this issue is a lot larger and relevant to us all than any workers’ compensation considerations.

So, before I get to the workers’ compensation side of things, on a much bigger level, according to this article from Reuters, suicide rates are rising among U.S. workers.  From 2000 to 2016, the U.S. suicide rate among adults ages 16 to 64 rose 34 percent, according to the study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The risk may depend partly on the types of jobs people do.  According to the Reuters article, the highest suicide rate among men was for workers in construction and mining jobs, with 43.6 deaths for every 100,000 workers in 2012 and 53.2 deaths per 100,000 in 2015.  The highest suicide rate among women was for workers in arts, design, entertainment, sports and media, with 11.7 fatalities for every 100,000 workers in 2012 and 15.6 deaths per 100,000 in 2015.  I’ll talk a little about what employers can do to help stem this trend below.

So, what about the issue from a workers’ compensation perspective?  Well, first of all, if your initial thought was “you can’t get workers’ compensation benefits from a suicide, it’s an intentional act” you were about 90% correct.   Under O.R.C. 4123.54(A)(1) employees are not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for injuries that are “purposely self-inflicted”. But that’s not the end of the story.  In certain situations, suicide is not excluded as a “purposefully self-inflicted” injury under Ohio law.

The case that established the rule regarding suicide claims is Borbely v. Prestole Everlock, Inc., 57 Ohio.St.3d (1991).  In the Borbely case, the employee was physically injured during the course of his employment. Although he eventually returned to work two years later, he suffered a second work-related injury shortly thereafter. Several years later he overdosed on prescription pain medication and, two days after leaving the hospital, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

In Borbely, the Court held that, in order for dependents to recover workers’ compensation benefits for a death by suicide, they must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that:

  1. there was initially an injury received in the course of, and arising out of, the employee’s employment;
  2. the work-related injury caused the employee to become dominated by a disturbance of the mind of such severity as to override normal rational judgment; and
  3. the disturbance resulted in the employee’s suicide.”

But, it’s a very narrow exception.  Fairly recently, the 3rd Appellate District Court denied compensation to a widow who filed a claim for the death of her husband.  Her husband sustained a back injury at work, and became addicted to painkillers.  He was later discovered dead with a syringe in his arm, a lighter, a spoon, and his prescription medication pills, which he had melted down.  No evidence was introduced to indicate that the work related injury caused the injured worker to decide to take his own life.  The Court denied the claim, stating that there was nothing to indicate that the Supreme Court intended the Borbely exception to apply to accidental death caused by drug abuse.   The Supreme Court declined to hear the widow’s appeal.

I’ve blogged many times about opioid prescriptions and what Ohio is doing to deal with the epidemic.  See How the Ohio BWC is Getting Tough on Opioid Pain Medications and Lumbar Fusion Surgery  How to Identify and Control Chronic Opioid Use in a Workers’ Compensation Claim, and The Ohio BWC Removed Oxycodone from the List of Approved Medications. Is Marijuana a Possible Replacement?  But that’s not the point of this post.

Employers can help focus on this growing problem, outside of any workers’ compensation considerations.  Employers can play a role in suicide prevention by offering worksite wellness programs, encouraging use of behavioral and mental health services, and training workers in the warning signs of suicide.  According to Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute in Boise, Idaho, who was quoted in the Reuters article, promoting social interaction rather than isolation in daily tasks on the job may also help with suicide prevention.

People having suicidal thoughts or observing suicidal behavior in a co-worker or loved one can call for help: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

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