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Seafarer’s arthritis as a compensable work-related illness

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.

A 1996 study by doctors from St. Thomas’ Hospital in London published in Occupational Medicine Journal pointed out that seafarers, particularly engineers, are required regularly to lift weights in confined spaces, which may involve kneeling or twisting in a crouched position.

This is aggravated by their vertical environment, which involves daily climbing a number of stairs.

In doing so, they are vulnerable to repeated acute minor trauma to their knees.

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 is not work related, or it is a pre-existing condition as it may have occurred overtime and could not have developed during the seafarer’s stay on board the vessel.

In Teekay Shipping Phils. v.  Jarin (GR 195598 June 25, 2014), the Supreme Court granted total permanent disability benefits to the Chief Cook who suffered rheumatoid arthritis.

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 while performing his daily duties as Chief Cook.

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

In Oscar D. Gamboa v. Maunlad Trans. Inc. (GR 232905, August 20, 2016), the Court considered osteoarthritis, or the degenerative changes of the spine, as a work-related illness due to the Bosun’s task (on board 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 v. 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 personal doctor explained that joint stresses from the seafarers’ prolonged and, at times, faulty work posture cannot be avoided and may have taken a toll on his knees.

He was found to be unfit to work as a seafarer considering that his bilateral knee pain significantly decreased his activity tolerance and can no longer be returned to his pre-injury capacity.

The Court likewise noted that his dietary intake while aboard the vessel could have contributed to the aggravation of his illness.

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

The Court emphasized that what the law requires is not direct proof but only reasonable proof of the causal connection between the work and ailment.

The disputable presumption principle under Section 20(B)(4) of the POEA contract signify that the non-inclusion in the list of compensable diseases/illnesses in Section 32-A does not translate to an absolute exclusion from disability benefits.

It operates in favor of the seafarer as the burden rests upon his employer to overcome the statutory presumption.

Hence, unless contrary evidence is presented by the seafarer’s employer, this disputable presumption stands.

Substantial evidence is considered by the courts in their decision, which consists of such relevant evidence, which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to justify a conclusion that the seafarer’s working conditions caused or at least increased the risk of contracting the disease.

Atty. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan  law offices. For comments, e-mail info@sapalovelez.com or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786.

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