Noise and seafarer’s hearing loss
Losing hearing is a serious medical condition for a seafarer as it impacts his physical and economic well-being.
A seafarer’s hearing loss may be caused or aggravated by his working environment like noise entitling him to disability benefits.
In the case of OSM Maritime Services v. Nelson Go (GR 238128 February 17, 2021), the medically-repatriated seafarer was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease, which is described as an incurable disorder of the inner ear that causes severe dizziness, ringing sound in the ears, intermittent hearing loss, and feeling of ear pressure or pain.
In granting total permanent benefits, the Court disregarded the fit-to-work assessment issued by the company doctor, noting that it does not mirror the seafarer’s true condition in terms of his ability to resume his duties.
His work as an Oiler/Motorman onboard the vessel exposed him to loud and deafening engine noises, engine heat and harmful chemicals inherent in engine oils.
Taking into account his length of service, the seafarer’s continued exposure to these health hazards onboard the vessel had contributed mainly to a very great possibility for him to contract the illnesses and/or having aggravated the same while onboard the vessel.
In various cases, the Supreme Court acknowledged the fact that the working condition on board the vessel can aggravate the seafarer’s medical condition, regardless if the illness is listed or not as occupational diseases.
Although the word “aggravate” does not appear in the definition of work-related illnesses under the POEA contract, the Court nevertheless interpreted such phrase “work-connected” to include the so-called “aggravation theory”.
This theory was utilized in the case of Magsaysay vs. Laurel (March 20, 2013 GR 195518) wherein the Court ruled on the reasonable work connection between condition at work and the development of the medical condition. The seafarer’s constant exposure to hazards such as chemicals and the varying temperature coupled by stressful tasks in his employment caused, or at least aggravated, his illness.
In Remigio vs. NLRC (487 SCRA 190), the Court ruled that of an ailment does not depend on whether the injury or disease was pre-existing at the time of the employment but rather if the disease or injury is work related or aggravated his condition. At the very least, the arduous nature of his employment had contributed to the aggravation of the injury, if indeed it was pre-existing at the time of his employment.
The exact cause of the ailment suffered by a claimant is not significant, and the possibility that factors other than the employment, such as advancing age, may have caused or contributed to the development of the ailment, is not a drawback; for what is material and decisive is that the employment contributed even in a small degree in aggravating the ailment. (Calvero vs. ECC, 117 SCRA 452)
Seafarers working in engine rooms had a higher tendency to experience hearing disabilities. Hearing loss is a very real possibility but is one of those types of occupational illness that are not usually immediately obvious.
The effects of exposure to engine noise over the years more often than not appear as the seafarer approaches retirement age.
In the event that such hearing loss was detected during the PEME, the seafarer will not automatically receive medical benefits even if he is connected with the company for a long period of time.
The seafarer must complain of the illness during the effectivity of the contract which leads to his medical repatriation. Otherwise, it will be a case of finished contract disqualifying him for medical benefits.
If the seafarer suspects that he has hearing loss because of noise exposure on the job, he should see a doctor before disembarkation and get medical records that prove it was most likely caused by years of exposure at work.
Under the POEA Contract, total deafness of both ears is assessed as a Grade “3” disability.
Despite said unfortunate condition, the seafarer will not be given total permanent disability benefits.
A seafarer suffering from total deafness may be considered more of a liability than an asset if he is allowed to go on board the vessel.
The contract fails to recognize that “it is not the injury which is compensated, but rather it is the incapacity to work resulting in the impairment of one’s earning capacity. Disability need not render the seafarer absolutely helpless or feeble to be compensable; it is enough that it incapacitates to perform his customary work”( PTC vs. NLRC, 353 SCRA 47).
(Lawyer 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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