Hypertension as a seafarer’s illness

THE JOB of a seafarer is not exactly a walk in the park. One with a serious medical condition like uncontrolled hypertension is “a walking time bomb ready to explode towards the end of his employment days.”

Working on ships has its perks, but it’s also a well-known fact that working at sea is one of the most hazardous occupations vis-à-vis personal health and safety concerns of seafarers. Apart from accidents, seafarers are prone to certain serious diseases and health hazards due to the nature of on-board work, change in climatic conditions, type of cargo carried, working hours, materials being handled, epidemic and endemic diseases, and personal habits.

High blood pressure usually has no symptoms. It is often labelled as “the silent killer.” Sometimes seafarers with markedly elevated blood pressure may develop complications because organs are stressed when they are exposed to elevated pressures.

Under the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) Standard Employment Contract, a seafarer diagnosed with hypertension will not automatically be given medical benefits. There must be end-organ damage resulting from uncontrolled hypertension with the following conditions that must be met for the illness to be considered compensable:

  1. If he is a known hypertensive or diabetic, he should show compliance with prescribed maintenance medications and doctor-recommended lifestyle changes.
  2. If he is not known to have hypertension, has the following on his last pre-employment medical examination (PEME): normal BP, normal CXR and ECG/treadmill.

The types of organ damage commonly seen in chronic high blood pressure include heart attack, heart failure , stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA, mini-stroke) caused by narrowed blood vessels or because of an aneurysm, kidney failure, eye damage with progressive vision loss, peripheral arterial disease causing leg pain with walking (claudication), or outpouchings of the aorta, called aneurysms.

Very high blood pressure, whether untreated or treated, can have more immediate risks of end-organ damages resulting in incapacity for safe performance of duties and the need for emergency medical care.

A seafarer must likewise be aware that he must report the symptoms while he is still on board the vessel since entitlement to the medical benefits is co-terminus with the effectivity of the POEA contract. Thus, if his sickness is diagnosed after he has already arrived at the port or airport of the point of hire, or he later dies after his arrival, any claims for disability or death benefits will be denied since his contract was terminated without any documentation of his medical condition.

Symptoms of high blood pressure affecting the brain include headache, dizziness, blurred vision, nausea, and vomiting. On the other hand, symptoms of high blood pressure affecting the heart include chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, nausea, and vomiting

Seafarers often do not seek medical care until they have symptoms arising from the organ damage caused by chronic (on-going, long-term) high blood pressure.

An overseas worker, having to ward off homesickness by reason of being physically separated from his family for the entire duration of his contract, bears a great degree of emotional strain while making an effort to perform his work well.

The strain is even greater in the case of a seafarer who is constantly subjected to the perils of the sea while at work abroad and away from his family. He can be constantly exposed to installation of various kinds of harmful fumes and emissions and chemicals being used for the daily operations of the vessel.

What makes the job more difficult, aside from exposure to fluctuating temperatures caused by variant weather changes of extreme hot and cold, the job obviously entails laborious manual tasks conducted in a moving ship, which makes for increased work-related stress.

All these factors may exacerbate a seafarer’s medical condition. Prolonged and continued exposure to the same could probably risk him to another attack (Oriental Shipmgt. Co., Inc. vs. Bastol (G.R. 168269 January 29, 2010).

Seafarers working for companies for long period of time are normally saddled with heavy responsibilities relative to navigation of the vessel, ship safety and management of emergencies.

A seafarer can be subjected to physical and mental stress and strain; these responsibilities cause heavy burdens on one’s shoulders all these years, and certainly contributed to the development of a seafarer’s illness.  Any kind of work or labor produces stress and strain normally resulting in wear and tear of the human body.

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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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