Benzene and seafarer’s illnesses

THE SEAFARER’S constant exposure to hazards such as chemicals (including benzene) and varying temperatures, coupled by stressful tasks in his employment, may cause medical conditions like leukemia, cancer and goiter.

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.

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 the 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 vs Laurel, G.R. No. 195518, March 20, 2013)

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.

The least common way of chemical exposure is ingestion. However, when ingestion does occur, significant internal damage may result such as damage to the throat, mouth and stomach.

In Grieg Philippines vs Gonzales (G.R. No. 228296, July 26, 2017), the seafarer was able to establish a reasonable linkage between his job as an ordinary seaman and his leukemia. He has submitted his official job description which included removing rust accumulations and refinishing affected areas of the ship with chemicals and paint to retard the oxidation process. This meant that he was frequently exposed to harmful chemicals and cleaning aids which may have contained benzene.

The company also miserably failed to dispute the medical finding that the seafarer’s leukemia is not hereditary, as his tests reveal no apparent chromosome abnormality.

The Supreme Court likewise ruled in Career Phils. Shipmgt. Inc vss Serna, (G.R. No. 172086, Dec. 3, 2012) that the seafarer’s  illness identified as toxic goiter or thyrotoxicosis was work-related, considering the toxic chemicals such as methanol, phenol, ethanol, benzene, and caustic soda were regularly transported by the company’s  tankers.

It added that even if the causes of the illness are unknown it does not negate the probability, indeed the possibility, that the seafarer’s toxic goiter was caused by the undisputed work conditions in the chemical tankers.

In Jessie David vs OSG Ship Mgt. (G.R. No. 197205, Sept. 26, 2012), the seafarer’s “malignant fibrous histiocytoma”, a form of tumor, was considered work-related by the Supreme Court after he showed that part of his duties as a Third Officer of the crude tanker  involved “overseeing the loading, stowage, securing and unloading of cargoes.”

As a necessary corollary, the seafarer was frequently exposed to crude oil that the vessel was carrying. The chemical components of crude oil include, among others, sulphur, vanadium and arsenic compounds. Hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide may also be encountered while benzene is a naturally occurring chemical in crude oil. It has been regarded that these hazardous chemicals can possibly contribute to the formation of cancerous masses.

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(Atty. Dennis Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email [email protected], or call 09175025808 or 09088665786.)/PN

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