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Spinal conditions  as compensable work-related illnesses

By: ATTY. DENNIS GORECHO - Columnist/CDN Digital | October 19,2021 - 08:00 AM

A seafarer’s spinal illness  is considered compensable due to strenuous activities on board the vessel that could have led to or at least aggravated his work-related medical conditions. The Supreme Court used this rationale in granting  total permanent disability in the case of Resty Caampued vs. Next Wave Maritime Mgt., Inc. (G.R. No. 253756 May 12, 2021)

The seafarer was tasked to assist in the repair of the ship’s generator. He was directed to pull the lining of the generator’s piston. 

In a squatting position, he forcefully pulled the piston lining upward. Shortly thereafter, he suffered persistent mild pain on his lower back that later led to his medical repatriation.

Upon his arrival in the country, he was diagnosed  to have suffered from at least three (3) spinal conditions, i.e., degenerative disc, spondylolisthesis, and spinal tuberculosis.

Degenerative disc disease is a spinal condition caused by the breakdown of the intervertebral discs which results in the loss of flexibility and ability to cushion the spine. When discs degenerate, the vertebral bodies become closer together and this increased bone on bone friction causes the wearing away of protective cartilage and results in the condition known as osteoarthritis. The degenerating discs place excessive stress on the joints of the spine and the supporting ligaments, which, overtime, can lead to the formation of osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis is a stage of degenerative disc disease. Spondylosis, on the other hand, is a term used to describe osteoarthritis of the spine. 

The company denied the claims for disability benefits on the ground of non-work relatedness of spinal tuberculosis.

The Supreme Court ruled otherwise noting that the other illness, spinal disc degeneration/desiccation or osteoarthritis, is a compensable disease. Prior to assuming his duties as Engine Fitter aboard the principal’s vessel, the seafarer was declared fit to work after the Pre-Employment Examination (PEME) with the company-designated physician.   The seafarer showed no signs of any spinal injury before he boarded the vessel.

His back pain and limited lumbar movement started only after he forcefully pulled the piston lining of the ship’s generator. And these symptoms persisted way beyond the time he got medically repatriated. It is reasonable to claim a causal relationship between seafarer’s illness and his work as Engine Fitter of his employer’s vessel.

Under Section 32-A (21) of the 2010 POEA-SEC, osteoarthritis is expressly considered as an occupational disease when contracted in any occupation involving any of the following: (a) joint strain from carrying heavy loads, or unduly heavy physical labor;  (b) minor or major injuries to the joint; (c) excessive use or constant strenuous usage of a particular joint,  (c) extreme temperature changes (humidity,  heat and cold exposures); and (d) faulty work posture or use of vibratory tools.

As Engine Fitter, the seafarer was constantly exposed to strenuous work. His responsibilities included several strenuous physical activities such as: (a) fabrication and shaping of steel, aluminum and other materials; (b) lifting of metals and materials for fabrication; (c) setting up and operating manually controlled machines in skilled precision; (d) carrying and lifting heavy-duty tools and equipment during maintenance and repair; and (e) other all around strenuous duties as instructed by supervisor. 

To carry out these duties, he had to stand for most of the day and constantly moved around. Such strenuous activities could have led to or at least aggravated his condition, thus making it a compensable work-related illness.

Moreover, despite the findings that the seafarer has degenerative disc and spondylolisthesis, the company only treated and based their findings of non-compensability on the seafarer’s spinal tuberculosis. The company simply ignored the seafarer’s pleas to get him treated and medically assessed for his degenerative disc and spondylolisthesis, thus remained untreated and unresolved. Consequently, no medical assessment and certificate were issued to him for these conditions.

Without a valid final and definitive assessment from the company-designated doctors within the mandatory 120/240-day period, the law already steps in to consider a seafarer’s disability as total and permanent.

(Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email [email protected], or call 0917502580  or 09088665786).

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