IT IS A well-known fact that seafaring is one of the most hazardous occupations, in regards to 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 onboard work, change in climatic conditions, type of cargo carried, working hours, materials being handled, epidemic and endemic diseases, personal habits, etc.
Because of the nature of their work, seafarers are bound to visit many ports in different parts of the world and are thus exposed to various pandemic and epidemic diseases.
For a sick seafarer to be entitled to medical benefits under the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration – Standard Employment Contract (POEA-SEC), he must have suffered work-related illness which is defined as any sickness resulting to disability or death as a result of one of the 24 occupational diseases listed under Section 32-A of the said contract with the conditions set therein satisfied.
The list includes an infectious disease that a seafarer may suffer during the effectivity of his contract which is defined as a disease resulting from the presence and activity of pathogenic microbial agents in the body. These agents include pathogenic viruses, pathogenic bacteria, fungi, protozoa, multi-cellular parasites, and aberrant proteins known as prions.
Infectious diseases are recognized as an occupational hazard in seafaring and are closely connected to the conditions of working and living onboard. These may either result from person-to-person transmission of infectious agents or through food, water or insects onboard ships or in ports, as well as from pre-existing conditions.
The seafarer may suffer any of the following Infections:
(d) Pulmonary Tuberculosis
(h) Conjunctivitis (Bacterial and Viral)
(i) Norwalk Virus
(m) Otitis Media
(o) Viral Encephalitis
The list also contains other infections resulting in complications necessitating repatriation.
Most infections relentlessly find entry points to human populations through diverse mechanisms. Respiratory diseases are commonly acquired by contact with aerosolized droplets, spread by sneezing, coughing, talking, kissing or even singing e.g. bronchitis, PTB, pneumonia, sinusitis, and pneumonia.
Gastrointestinal diseases are often acquired by ingesting contaminated food and water e.g. Norwalk Virus, Salmonella and Leptospirosis.
Others may be due to contact with animals / insects / bacteria e.g. Malaria, Conjunctivitis (Bacterial and Viral), Tetanus, and anthrax.
The seafarer is required to prove that:
(1) he suffered an illness
(2) he suffered this illness during the term of his employment contract
(3) he complied with the procedures prescribed under Section 20-B
(4) his illness is one of the enumerated occupational disease or that his illness or injury is otherwise work-related
A seafarer suffering from any of the infections would still have to satisfy four conditions before his or her disease may be compensable:
- the seafarer’s work must involve the risks describe therein
- the disease was contracted as a result of the seafarer’s exposure to the described risks
- the disease was contracted within a period of exposure and under such factors necessary to contract it
- there was no notorious negligence on the part of the seafarer
In other words, to be entitled to compensation and benefits under this provision, it is not sufficient to simply establish that the seafarer’s illness or injury has rendered him permanently or partially disabled; it must also be shown that there is a causal connection between the seafarer’s illness or injury and the work for which he had been contracted.
Since one of the requirements for an illness to be compensable is that the seafarer suffered said illness during the effectivity of the POEA contract, it is imperative that his condition or symptoms must be documented while he is on board the vessel, such as headaches, fever, coughs, sore throat. chills, nausea, and shivering, skin rashes.
Otherwise, his claim for disability benefits might be denied due to failure to prove that said illness occurred while his contract is still in force.
Prevention of food and waterborne disease starts from well-constructed accommodation, galley, water system and food storage areas. Safe sources for catering materials, training of cooks and everyday ship hygiene and maintenance are essential.
Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho is a graduate of the University of the Philippines’ College of Law (1998) and currently a junior partner at Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan (SVBB) law offices. He heads the seafarers’ division.
He is a speaker on nationwide paralegal seminars on seafarers’ rights and presently the executive vice president of the Maritime Law Association of the Philippines (MARLAW). He is also an active member of the Maritime Forum, Inc., the National Seafarers Day (NSD) committee and International Pro Bono Network.
The SVBB law works hand in hand with various seafarers’ welfare organizations such as the Apostleship of the Seas (AOS) Philippines, Luneta Seafarers Welfare Foundation (LUSWELF), International Seafarers Welfare Assistance Network (ISWAN), and United Filipino Seafarers (UFS).
Atty. Gorecho is also a legal commentator on maritime issues on print, radio and TV, and co-anchor of the radio program “Bantay OCW Usapang Marino” aired over Radio Inquirer dzIQ every Wednesday, 10:30 a.m. to 12 noon. (For comments, email email@example.com, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786.)/PN