Toxic chemicals and seafarer’s heart diseases

Seafarer’s medical conditions,  including cardiovascular diseases, can be attributed to his 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, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786).