The Supreme Court, in a recent ruling that awarded state compensation to health problems suffered by former employees at asbestos mills in Osaka Prefecture, has made it clear that the government — with its regulatory powers — is responsible for ensuring the safety and health of workers at industrial sites. Since it takes decades for symptoms to emerge in patients after they have inhaled asbestos dust, the scope of health damage might expand beyond the people who have so far taken legal actions to seek compensation. The government needs to take the top court decision seriously and move quickly to offer financial help to the victims, many of whom are already advanced in age.

The Supreme Court ruled Oct. 9 that the state failed to take regulatory steps fast enough to prevent health damage to the workers, who eventually developed lung cancer and mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos dust while working at the mills in the prefecture’s Sennan area. The court ordered the government to pay a total of ¥330 million in compensation to 30 former workers and their deceased relatives, while sending the cases of 22 others back to the Osaka High Court.

Due to its fire resistance, its durability and its low cost, asbestos was widely used in construction materials and as a heat insulator during Japan’s postwar period of rapid growth. Yet the health risks posed by inhaling the mineral’s extremely thin fibers was known from early on. By the late 1950s, surveys commissioned by the health ministry showed that workers at asbestos mills face a grave risk of serious lung illnesses.

The top court ruled that the government should have used its regulatory power to require operators of asbestos mills to install air ventilation systems in their facilities by 1958, when the technology and practical knowledge about such systems was widely available, but it neglected to take such steps until 1971. The ruling serves as a rebuke to the government for prioritizing industry interests over workers’ health.

The Sennan area in southwestern Osaka Prefecture used to be home to large numbers of small and medium-size asbestos mills, which supplied the defense industries before and during the war, and after in major sectors like steel, automobiles and shipbuilding. The area accounted for about 80 percent of domestic output in asbestos products during the 1960s and the ’70s, but it is believed that the implementation of safety measures for workers lagged in many small firms even as the dangers of exposure to asbestos dust became known. Meanwhile, business dwindled for the mills at the Sennan area as they lost customers to foreign competition. All of the plants that employed the plaintiffs in the two suits handled by the top court have since gone out of business, forcing the workers to take legal action against the state for compensation.

Health damage from exposure to asbestos was highlighted again after it was learned in 2005 that residents of Amagasaki who lived near a plant belonging to major machinery maker Kubota Corp. also suffered from asbestos-related illnesses. Prompted by this revelation, about 1,000 people have applied to work-related accident compensations over the health damage each year. The government has implemented a special law to pay for treatment of illnesses suffered by residents around plants that used asbestos, but the amount offered is lower than the level provided in labor accident compensation.

More than 700 people who developed health problems after being exposed to asbestos dust at construction sites around the country have filed lawsuits against the state and makers of construction materials, seeking a total of some ¥24 billion in damages. One district court has so far held the state liable for their health damage, while another court has ruled otherwise.

As these and other legal battles go on, time is running out for many of the former workers in advanced age. All of the plaintiffs in the suits over asbestos mills in the Sennan area are at least 70 years old, and 14 of them have died since they filed the lawsuits in 2006. The government needs to act swiftly to resolve the problem.

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