When leukemia strikes

FOR A DISABILITY claim to prosper, a seafarer suffering from leukemia only needs to show that his work and contracted illness have a reasonable linkage that must lead a rational mind to conclude that the seafarer’s occupation may have contributed or aggravated the disease.

Seafarers are exposed to occupational risk factors as well as environmental risk factors as part of their normal everyday activities since they spend a large part of their lives at sea.

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 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 diseases or that his illness or injury is otherwise work-related; and

(5) he complied with the four conditions enumerated under Section 32-A for an occupational disease or a disputably-presumed work-related disease to be compensable

Under the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) Contract, “acute myeloid leukemia” and chronic lymphocytic leukemia are listed as occupational diseases if these are secondary to prolonged benzene exposure.

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.”

Leukemia is cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and the lymphatic system.  The cancerous cells in the bone marrow spill out into the bloodstream.

In granting full permanent disability benefits, the Court noted in the recent case of Grieg Philippines vs. Michael John Gonzalez (July 26, 2017, G.R. No. 228296) that the functions as an Ordinary Seaman aboard the vessel , among others, 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. Furthermore, the vessel transported chemicals which could have also contributed to the seafarer’s leukemia.

The company miserably failed to dispute the medical finding that the seafarer’s leukemia is not hereditary, as his tests reveal no apparent chromosome abnormality. This undeniable circumstance,  plus the fact that he was declared fit for sea duty prior to boarding the vessel for two consecutive employment contracts with the same company, all the more bolster the conclusion that the conditions set forth in Section 32-A regarding the work-relatedness of his leukemia are present in this case.

Settled is the rule that for illness to be compensable, it is not necessary that the nature of the employment be the sole and only reason for the illness suffered by the seafarer. It is sufficient that there is a reasonable linkage between the disease suffered by the employee 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.

Most court cases arise due to the fact that the only types of cancer on the occupational illnesses list are:

(a) cancer of the epithelial lining of the bladder (papilloma of the bladder);

(b) cancer, epithellomatous or ulceration of the skin or of the corneal surface of the eye due to tar, pitch, bitumen, mineral oil or paraffin, or compound product;

(c) Acute myeloid leukemia; and

(d) chronic lymphocytic leukemia

In reality, many seafarers suffer from other types of cancers like that affect the lungs, kidneys, liver, pancreas, nasopharyngeal and many more that are not one of the occupational diseases listed in the POEA Contract.

An illness not otherwise listed in Section 32-A is disputably presumed work-related. This presumption works in favor of a seafarer, because it then becomes incumbent upon the employer to dispute or overturn this presumption.

(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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