Research

Fatal seizure attributable to night shift work

This is not a research item, but a real world example of how shift work negatively impacts workers' health.

A tribunal has ruled that a worker's epilepsy-related death was materially contributed to by his late-night shift work and sleep deprivation, and awarded his widow $400,000 in death benefits.

AAT Senior Member Linda Kirk found the medical evidence showed there were three contributing factors to the Australian National University night watchman's death, with his shift work being a "contributing factor of at least 10 per cent" to the fatal injury, which was "not a trivial contribution" and met the "required threshold for materiality."

The 47-year-old worker died at home in August 2011 when he collapsed while hanging out the washing. The cause of his death was found to be "sudden unexpected death in epilepsy", and his wife claimed workers' compensation under the Commonwealth SRC Act.

She claimed his death was contributed to by sleep deprivation arising from his employment, where he performed multiple night shifts in a row, was made to work on his rostered days off, and abided by his supervisor's rule to not take any sick days for three years.

Comcare rejected the claim, noting his death occurred at home and not at his place of work. It said it was not satisfied his injury arose out of or in the course of his employment, or that his employment contributed to the condition to a significant degree.

The widow appealed, telling the AAT the worker experienced partial seizures in early 2007, after he finished working a seven-day midnight-to-8am roster cycle. In July that year, he suffered a "grand mal" seizure and was taken to hospital, where a neurologist reported the seizure was likely precipitated by sleep deprivation. In May 2010, he experienced another grand mal event, and was diagnosed as having suffered a "sleep deprivation seizure", after working the midnight-to-8am shift for five consecutive days.

His doctor wrote to his employer stating he was not to work this shift as it increased the risk of grand mal seizures, but he did not pass this advice on to the university until nine months later, because he believed it would cause problems.

In May 2011, he was diagnosed with an "adjustment disorder secondary to unreasonable working conditions" and epilepsy "provoked by unreasonable working conditions", and took periods of sick leave.

There was an eight-day gap between his last shift and his death.

Comcare disputed the worker suffered a work-related condition in the form of an aggravation of his pre-existing epilepsy. In the alternative, it claimed there was little evidence to show he was sleep deprived because of work when he died.

Senior Member Kirk found the worker's duties required him to work mostly from either 4pm to midnight, or from midnight to 8am. "The Tribunal is satisfied based on the medical evidence that both these shifts negatively impacted the onset of the deceased's epileptic seizures, and therefore that there was a causal relationship between the injury and his employment," she said. "Accordingly, it is satisfied that the injury the deceased suffered that resulted in his death on 29 August 2011 arose out of his employment."
Read more: Muirden and Australian National University (Compensation) [2021] AATA 4560 (8 December 2021) Source: OHSAlert 

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