Seafarer’s arthritis as a compensable work-related illness

By: ATTY. DENNIS GORECHO - Columnist/CDN Digital | November 24,2020 - 08:00 AM

Arthritis is considered as compensable work-related illness for seafarers  who performed tasks onboard  the vessel  that involved unduly heavy physical labor and joint strain.

The most common types are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

The typical symptoms of arthritis include painful and swollen joints, especially in the hands, feet, and knees; fever, fatigue, red and puffy hands, hard bumps (called rheumatoid nodules) just under the skin near the joints, loss of appetite and functional disability.

In most cases, employers refuse to pay disability benefits on the premise that the illness was a pre-existing condition as it may have occurred overtime and could not have developed during  his stay on board the vessel.

In Teekay Shipping Phils. vs Jarin ( G.R. No. 195598 June 25, 2014), the Supreme Court granted total permanent disability benefits to the seafarer who was able to prove that his rheumatoid arthritis was contracted out of his daily duties as Chief Cook.

Rheumatoid arthritis as an autoimmune disorder occurs when the  immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s tissues. It affects the lining of joints, causing a painful swelling that can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity.

The Court took note that the risk of contracting rheumatoid arthritis was increased by the seafarer’s exposure to the working conditions in the vessel.

He was often required to work for long periods of time, constantly exposed to extreme temperatures while performing his functions and was made to carry heavy loads which caused so much stress to his joints and muscles.

In Oscar D. Gamboa vs. Maunlad Trans. Inc. ( G.R. No. 232905, August 20, 2016), the Court considered osteoarthritis, or the degenerative changes of the spine, as a work-related illness due to the seafarer’s tasks as Bosun of the cargo vessel that transported logs which clearly involved unduly heavy physical labor and joint strain.

Osteoarthritis is associated with a breakdown of cartilage in joints and occurs when the cartilage (that cushions the ends of bones in the joints)  gradually deteriorates.

In  the recent case of Wilfredo Salas vs. Transmed Manila Corp (GR 247221 June 17, 2020), the Supreme Court granted the claim for total and permanent disability benefits to a seafarer who was diagnosed to have suffered gouty arthritis.

The Court took note of the medical opinion of the seafarer’s personal doctor that the knee pain could be brought about by repeated stresses and strains to his knees while performing his tasks as a Second Officer.

The doctor explained that joint stresses from prolonged and, at times, faulty work posture cannot be avoided and may have taken a toll on the seafarer’s knees.

Considering that the seafarer’s bilateral knee pain significantly decreased his activity tolerance and can no longer be returned to his pre-injury capacity, he was found to be unfit to work as a seafarer.

The Court likewise noted that the illness resulted and was acquired while aboard the vessel as his dietary intake while on board the vessel could have therefore contributed to the aggravation of said illness.

Such factors in aforesaid cases proved the causal connection between the seafarers’  work and the increased risk of developing arthritis.

The court in said cases emphasized that what the law requires is not direct proof but reasonable proof of the causal connection between the work and ailment.

Under the POEA standard employment contract, a work-related illness is “any sickness resulting to disability or death as a result of an occupational disease listed under Section 32-A with the conditions set therein satisfied.”

The enumeration in Section 32-A, however, does not preclude other illnesses/diseases not so listed from being compensable.

The POEA contract cannot be presumed to contain all the possible injuries that render a seafarer unfit for further sea duties.

This is in view of Section 20(B)(4)\ of the POEA contract which states that “(t)hose illnesses not listed in Section 32 of the contract are disputably presumed as work-related.”

Concomitant with such presumption is the burden placed upon the claimant to present substantial evidence that his working conditions caused or at least increased the risk of contracting the disease.

Substantial evidence consists of such relevant evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to justify a conclusion that there is a causal connection between the nature of his employment and his illness, or that the risk of contracting the illness was increased by his working conditions.

Only a reasonable proof of work-connection, not direct causal relation is required to establish compensability of a non-occupational disease

Atty. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail [email protected] or call 09175025808 or 09088665786.

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