The Kyoto District Court last month ordered the national government and manufacturers of building materials to pay a total of ¥216 million to construction workers and a bereaved relative in compensation for illnesses suffered through exposure to asbestos at construction sites decades ago. In four of five similar lawsuits, including the latest case, the judiciary has determined that the government was responsible for asbestos-linked illnesses among construction workers and ordered it to pay damages. The government should take the rulings seriously and work out a scheme to provide relief to construction workers who suffered health damage from asbestos.
Prior to the Kyoto ruling, district courts in Tokyo, Fukuoka and Osaka held the national government liable for the health damage suffered by construction workers but exempted building materials makers of responsibility, while the Yokohama District Court cleared both the government and the makers of liability. The Sapporo District Court is to hand down its decision on another case in the near future.
In addition to these lawsuits, other groups of plaintiffs have filed damages suits in Tokyo, Yokohama and Sapporo.
In the Kyoto lawsuit, the 27 plaintiffs — 26 construction workers who developed either lung cancer or mesothelioma and a relative of a worker who died from such an illness — demanded ¥1 billion from the government and 32 makers of building materials. The court ordered nine of the firms to pay ¥110 million in damages to 23 plaintiffs — the first ruling that recognized the responsibility of building material manufacturers. It determined there is a high probability that asbestos-containing materials produced by the nine companies — each of which had a market share of at least 10 percent — caused the health damage. Other courts have relieved building material makers of the responsibility on the grounds that it can’t be determined which company’s products were used at the construction sites.
The Kyoto court also told the government to pay roughly ¥100 million to 15 plaintiffs for its failure to take safety steps in time to prevent the health damage — saying that the state should have been able to recognize in 1971 the health risk of workers spraying asbestos-containing materials at construction sites. It was only in 1995 that the government made it mandatory for construction workers to wear protective masks.
Asbestos is a silicate mineral consisting of long and thin fibrous crystals, with the diameter of each fiber about one-five thousandths that of a human hair. Since it is highly fire-resistant, it was widely used in building materials from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Inhaling asbestos can cause lung cancer or mesothelioma. According to the health ministry, some 11,000 cases of workers suffering health damage were recognized in the 10 years to fiscal 2014 as labor accidents resulting from exposure to asbestos. About half the cases involved construction workers.
Illnesses caused by asbestos have a long incubation period — it is estimated to take 15 to 40 years for patients exposed to asbestos to develop lung cancer and 20 to 50 years to suffer from mesothelioma. Asbestos-related health damage might become more widespread in the future since the demolition of some 2.8 million buildings nationwide that contain asbestos materials has yet to peak.
In 2005, it surfaced that Kubota Corp.’s asbestos-contaminated plant in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, had caused health damage not only to its employees at the factory but to nearby residents as well. The following year, Kubota established its own scheme to provide relief money to the residents, while the government’s law on asbestos health damage relief entered into force.
Also, an increasing number of workers had their asbestos-related health damage recognized as labor accidents and a series of lawsuits seeking damages were filed across the country. In 2014, the Supreme Court awarded government compensation to former workers at asbestos mills in the Sennan area in southwestern Osaka Prefecture — previously a major base of asbestos production — who suffered from lung cancer or mesothelioma.
Following the ruling, the government made it clear that it is ready to reach a court settlement with people who bother to file lawsuits if they meet the conditions for compensation specified by the Supreme Court. However, it takes the position that the scheme applies to former workers at asbestos mills but not to people who suffered ill effects through their exposure to asbestos at construction sites. But in either case, the government introduced the relevant safety regulations too late to prevent the health damage.
The government should realize that many of the ailing construction workers can’t wait until the Supreme Court hands down its decision after protracted judicial proceedings. It should quickly take necessary steps by heeding a call by the plaintiffs and their lawyers and supporters that the state, manufacturers of asbestos building materials and construction companies jointly establish a fund for compensation. In doing so, the government should also take into consideration the self-employed workers who have been excluded from damages in court rulings thus far on the grounds that they were technically employers.
Construction firms are not named as defendants in the series of lawsuits, but they should also participate in the efforts to provide relief to the victims. They may not bear the legal blame for the workers’ health damage but they should bear a certain social responsibility as a party that used the materials.