Asbestos victims need more help

The Tokyo District Court has ordered the state to award some ¥1.06 billion in compensation to 158 workers who suffered lung diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos dust. This is a significant ruling in that it decided that the state’s inadequate regulations were responsible for the workers’ sufferings. Yet, it is insufficient because the ruling did not award compensation to about half of the plaintiffs.

The Nov. 5 ruling demonstrates that lawsuits are not an effective mechanism to provide sufficient relief to workers who have developed lung diseases through their exposure to asbestos dust. The government, makers of construction materials and construction contractors should heed the court’s opinion expressed in its ruling and jointly set up a fund to provide relief to such workers.

The lawsuit was filed by 308 former construction workers in and around Tokyo against the state and 42 construction material makers. They demanded payment of some ¥11.8 billion in compensation.

The ruling said that in view of the spread of knowledge about the health risks from exposure to asbestos dust, the government should have ordered contractors to provide protective masks to workers engaged in the work of spraying asbestos as of January 1974. The ruling also said that the government should have implemented the same measure for workers handling materials containing asbestos inside buildings as of January 1981. The government prohibited the use of asbestos in 2003 in principle and introduced a complete ban in 2006.

In the case of workers engaged in asbestos spraying, the court awarded compensation to those who did such work in and after 1974. In the case of workers handling materials containing asbestos inside buildings, the court awarded state compensation to those who did such work in and after 1981. Thus many workers were excluded from state compensation.

The court also excluded self-employed subcontractors who engaged in the same work from state compensation on the grounds that they are not covered by the Industrial Safety and Health Law. In view of their working conditions, this court judgment is unreasonable. The ruling also exempted construction material makers from compensation responsibility.

The government and the Diet should heed the court’s call for taking legal steps to provide relief to workers who became ill from handling asbestos. The ruling also made it clear that if the government had introduced strict regulations earlier to protect workers, many of them would not have suffered from lung diseases.

Japan imported some 10 million tons of asbestos from 1950 to 2005 and most of it was used as construction material mainly during the high economic growth period of the 1960s and 1970s. As the demolishment of buildings from this era will only increase from now, the government and the construction industry must take adequate measures to protect workers.