WHILE consumers enjoy driving their cars, transporting automobiles as cargo onboard vessels can have a toll on a seafarer’s health.
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 unknowingly exposed to conditions that can even be fatal.
The seafarer’s constant exposure to hazards such as chemicals (like benzene) and the varying temperature, coupled with stressful tasks in his employment may cause a plethora of illnesses.
Benzene, a known carcinogen, is a colorless, sweet-smelling chemical that is commonly used in the manufacturing of petroleum products such as gasoline, solvents, and crude oil.
It is also mainly used as a starting component in making other chemicals and materials including dyes, detergents, drugs, plastics, lubricants, nylon, rubbers, pesticides, resins, and synthetic fibers.
Vessels that can have higher benzene exposure include petroleum oil or chemical tank ships; petroleum or chemical carriers; liquid cargo, flat/deck, and open hopper barges; and liquid bulk tankers.
Benzene can cause a host of medical issues, including damage to reproductive organs and immune system, internal bleeding, aplastic anemia, myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), acute myelogenous, and cancer.
In the case of Melchor Deocariza vs. Fleet Mgt Services Phils, Inc. ( G.R. No. 229955, July 23, 2018), the Supreme Court awarded total permanent disability benefits to a seafarer (Chief Officer) afflicted with Aplastic Anemia brought about by chronic exposure to benzene.
To be considered as work-related, Aplastic Anemia should be contracted under the condition that they should have been exposed to x-rays, ionizing particles of radium or other radioactive substances, or other forms of radiant energy.
The company-designated physician pointed out that “exposure to benzene and its compound derivatives may predispose to the development of such condition,” and that work-relatedness will depend on exposure to certain factors.
The employers denied liability by arguing that the cause of Deocariza’s illness was not work-related.
They claimed that while the cars loaded in the vessel contained gasoline (which is said to have benzene elements), the cars’ engines were nonetheless always “OFF” during the voyage and turned “ON” only during the loading and unloading of the vehicles in the vessel.
They added that the seafarer could not have accumulated benzene elements in his body given that the vessel was equipped with many big exhaust fans that drive away from the toxic fumes.
The Supreme Court disregarded the employers’ argument by noting that the use of safety gears in the performance of the seafarer’s duties did not foreclose the possibility of his exposure to such harmful chemical, given that he was in fact diagnosed with Aplastic Anemia brought about by chronic exposure to benzene.
As a general rule, the seafarers most affected by benzene are those who perform vessel maintenance and tank cleaning.
But the Court noted that the claimant actively supervised as Chief Officer the loading and unloading operations of cars/motor vehicles in every voyage that constantly exposed him to an atmosphere of cargoes with nearly 6,000 cars in just one voyage alone.
Benzene, an important component of gasoline, is emitted from the engines of these cars in the course of their loading and unloading.
The Chief Officer was constantly exposed to the hazards of benzene in the course of his employment. Studies show that since benzene is highly volatile and tends to evaporate quickly, exposure occurs mostly through inhalation without detection.
The seafarer’s illness is work-related as the reasonable link between the nature of his work as Chief Officer and the illness contracted during his employment was sufficiently established by substantial evidence with no showing that he was notoriously negligent in the exercise of his functions.
The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that it is not necessary that the nature of the employment be the sole and only reason for the illness suffered by the seafarer for illness to be compensable.
It is sufficient that there is a reasonable linkage between the seafarer’s disease suffered and his work to lead a rational mind to conclude that his work may have contributed to the establishment or, at the very least, aggravation of any pre-existing condition he might have had. ( Magsaysay Maritime Services v. Laurel, G.R. NO. 195518, March 20, 2013)
(Atty. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786)