Toxic chemicals and seafarer’s heart diseases
Seafarer’s medical conditions, including cardiovascular diseases, can be attributed to their constant exposure to hazards such as toxic chemicals and the varying temperature, coupled by stressful tasks in his employment.
The Supreme Court recognized the relation of toxic chemicals with coronary artery diseases in granting the seafarer’s entitlement for the amount of Sixty Thousand US Dollars (US$60,000.00) as total permanent benefits in the case of Magat vs Interorient Maritime Enterprises (G.R. No. 232892, April 04, 2018).
The seafarer has been with the company as able bodied seaman for almost five years.
During the seafarer’s last employment, part of his job assignment was to paint the ship’s pump room.
Due to the poor ventilation in the said room, the seafarer claimed that he was able to inhale residues and vapors coming from the paint and thinner that he used.
The seafarer suffered shortness of breath and chest pains which he claimed to have reported to the Chief Mate but was told by the latter to just rest. When his condition improved, the seafarer continued to perform his duties until he was able to complete his contract.
Upon his repatriation, the seafarer reported immediately to the company and asked for a referral to the company doctor for a medical examination of his heart condition but the latter ignored his request.
He was then asked to execute a document indicating that he did not experience any illness or injury during his employment on board the vessel, and manifested his willingness to join the vessel again after three (3) months.
However, due to episodes of chest pains, he was seen by an Internal Medicine specialist on the same date for consultation who advised him to rest and prescribed certain medications.
The seafarer later re-applied with company. The result of the seafarer’s Pre-Employment Medical Examination (PEME) revealed that he had “Hypertension controlled with maintenance medication; Dilated Cardiomyopathy; Renal parenchymal calcification bilateral.” The seafarer was not deployed due to the said findings.
The Labor Arbiter held that the seafarer’s job had contributed even in a small degree to the development of his cardiovascular disease.
The fact that he signed off from the vessel due to “completion of contract” does not bar recovery of his disability claims considering that he aptly established reasonable causation of his cardiovascular disease and his work.
The labor arbiter also ruled that the seafarer’s heart disease could not have developed during that short period between his repatriation and medical examination, hence, he acquired or developed his illness during the term of his contract. This was upheld by the Commission but was reversed by the Court of Appeals.
In ruling in favor of the seafarer, the Supreme Court acknowledged that he was exposed to constant inhalation of hydrocarbons including residues and vapors of paints and paint thinners during their painting jobs especially when he painted the confined areas of the vessel.
Paints contain toxic chemicals like lead and benzene which if inhaled would cause health problems including cardiovascular diseases.
Benzene is a widely used chemical and is mainly used as a starting material in making other chemicals, including plastics, lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides.
Benzene is a colorless, sweet-smelling chemical used in cargo ships, particularly crude oil vessels.
The seafarers most affected by benzene are those who perform vessel maintenance and tank cleaning. Benzene can cause a host of medical issues, including immune system damage, cancer, internal bleeding, and leukemia.
The most common way in which seafarers are exposed to toxic chemicals while on the job is through inhalation. Since benzene tends to evaporate quickly, inhalation can happen without detection.
Another common way of exposure is through the skin and eyes, particularly if the chemicals are liquid, gas, or solid.
Most seafarers live and work under extremely hazardous conditions that can cause serious short-term and long-term damage to their health. In some cases, they are exposed to conditions that can even be fatal.
Since the seafarer was accepted and deployed by the employers, the Court noted that it is safe to say that he passed the PEME without any finding that he had a pre-existing heart ailment, or that they accepted him despite being aware of his condition.
In any case, the employers, in hiring the seafarer despite his advanced age and pre-existing medical condition, assumed the risk of liability for his health. They cannot be allowed to subsequently evade such liability by claiming that his illness was discovered only after his employment was terminated.
Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email [email protected], or call 09175025808 or 09088665786).
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