Osteoarthritis as a compensable seafarer’s illness

DEGENERATIVE changes of the spine, also known as osteoarthritis, is considered work-related due to the seafarer’s performance of tasks that clearly involve undue heavy physical labor and joint strain.

The job of a seafarer is not exactly a walk in the park.  He performs duties and responsibilities as instructed or as necessary. The job obviously entails laborious manual tasks conducted in a moving ship, which makes for increased work-related stress aside from exposure to fluctuating temperatures caused by weather changes.

The compensability of osteoarthritis was favorably ruled upon by the Supreme Court in the case of Oscar D. Gamboa vs Maunlad Trans Inc. (G.R. No. 232905, Aug. 20, 2016).

Seafarer Gamboa entered into a nine-month contract of employment as Bosun on board the vessel MV Oriente Shine, a cargo vessel transporting logs from Westminster, Canada to several Asian countries.

During the voyage, the seafarer slipped and lost his footing while going down the ship’s galley, which caused a writhing pain on the upper left side of his back. The ship master initially gave him Salonpas for his back.

Due to experienced back pain and difficulty in breathing, the captain was prompted to disembark him for medical consultation in Canada. While the foreign port doctor took note of the seafarer’s back pain, it was his diagnosed asthma that prompted the said doctor to declare him unfit for duty. The seafarer was medically repatriated.

Subsequent check-ups in the Philippines noted that the seafarer was suffering from “Degenerative Changes, Thoracolumbar Spine” and was found to have a “metallic foreign body on the anterior cervical area noted on x-ray.”

The company-designated physician opined this illness as not related to the cause of the seafarer’s repatriation.

The company denied liability for payment of the seafarer’s disability benefits. They alleged his osteoarthritis was declared to be not work-related by the specialist since it may have occurred overtime and could not have developed during his 22-day stay on board the vessel, hence, was a pre-existing condition.

The entitlement of a seafarer on overseas employment to disability benefits is governed by law, by the parties’ contracts, and by the medical findings.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) contract governs the procedure for compensation and benefits for a work-related injury or illness suffered by a seafarer on board sea-going vessels during the term of his employment contract.

A “work-related” illness is defined as “any sickness as a result of an occupational disease listed under Section 32-A of this Contract with the conditions set therein satisfied.

Osteoarthritis is associated with the breakdown of cartilage in joints and can occur in almost any joint in the body. It commonly occurs in the weight-bearing joints of the hips, knees and spine.

Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions the ends of bones in the joints gradually deteriorates. Cartilage is a firm, slippery tissue that permits nearly frictionless joint motion. The slick surface of the cartilage becomes rough. Eventually, if the cartilage wears down completely, one may be left with bone rubbing on bone.

There are conditions that should be met before an illness, such as osteoarthritis, can be considered as pre-existing, namely:

(a) the advice of a medical doctor on treatment was given for such continuing illness or condition; or

(b) the seafarer had been diagnosed and has knowledge of such illness or condition but failed to disclose the same during the PEME, and such cannot be diagnosed during the PEME. The Supreme Court ruled that none of these conditions had been established in this case.

The Court explained that osteoarthritis is a listed occupational disease if the occupation involves any of the following:

  1. joint strain from carrying heavy loads, or unduly heavy physical labor, as among laborers and mechanics
  2. minor or major injuries to the joint
  3. excessive use or constant strenuous usage of a particular joint, as among sportsmen, particularly those who have engaged in the more active sports activities
  4. extreme temperature changes (humidity, heat and cold exposures)
  5. faulty work posture or use of vibratory tools

The seafarer, as Bosun of the principal’s cargo vessel that transported logs, undeniably performed tasks that clearly involved unduly heavy physical labor and joint strain.

The Court declared that the seafarer’s sustained back injury was not the result of an accident but nonetheless ordered the payment of his disability in accordance with the provisions of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA.)


Atty. Dennis Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email info@sapalovelez.com, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786./PN


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