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A group of former tunnel-construction workers who contracted a lung disease after laboring on public works projects have reached a settlement in their damage suit filed with Tokyo High Court against the government. It is the first court-mediated settlement for a cluster of damage suits initially filed with 11 district courts by some 970 people seeking a total of 3.2 billion yen in compensation. Similar settlements have followed or are expected at three more high courts and 10 district courts. It is hoped that the government will do its best to prevent recurrence of the disease — pneumoconiosis — among workers.

The first damage suit was filed with the Tokyo District Court four years and seven months ago. The Tokyo court and four other district courts ordered the government to compensate the plaintiffs, criticizing the government for its failure to take sufficient measures to prevent pneumoconiosis. These rulings apparently prompted an attitude change by the government, which would not accept responsibility. Pneumoconiosis is caused by prolonged inhalation of mineral dusts.

Under the settlement, the plaintiffs, who had received compensation in earlier settlements with contractors, give up their claim to government compensation of 3.3 million yen per person. The emphasis is on strong prevention measures.

For its part, the government will oblige contractors within fiscal 2007 to ensure adequate ventilation during tunnel-boring work, monitor air-borne dust concentrations, and provide electric-fan masks for workers spraying concrete on tunnel walls. The land, infrastructure and transport ministry is also expected to revise regulations with the aim of shortening daily working hours for tunnel workers.

Although the original anti-pneumoconiosis law was enacted in 1960 and government regulations to prevent powder dust-related diseases went into effect in 1979, measures implemented by the government were not strong enough. The government must not forget that it has a duty to ensure that working conditions are conducive to workers’ health.

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