Hurry to Expand Relief System for Victims Harmed by Asbestos

The government bears a heavy responsibility for neglecting to take countermeasures even though it recognized the danger of asbestos, thereby spreading the damage. The system for providing relief to victims should be expanded as soon as possible.

In a class-action lawsuit filed by former workers who developed mesothelioma and lung cancer after inhaling asbestos at construction sites and are seeking compensation from the state and building material manufacturers, the Supreme Court rejected the government’s appeal against the lower court decision. The decision of the Tokyo High Court, which ordered the government to pay compensation, has been finalized.

The Tokyo High Court found that the government should have made it compulsory to wear dust masks, among other measures, by 1975 at the latest, but failed to establish regulations. The court also included independent contractors, who undertake work on their own, in the scope of the relief.

Twenty-two lawsuits of the same kind have been filed nationwide. Previous district and high court rulings differed on the period of time for which the government is liable for compensation and whether or not the damage caused to independent contractors should be included in the relief. This time, the top court has indicated a direction of providing a wide range of relief to the victims.

Asbestos, which is inexpensive and has excellent fire resistance, was imported in large quantities from the 1970s through the 1990s. It was used by building material manufacturers to produce interior, exterior and roofing materials. Workers at construction sites are believed to have inhaled dust containing asbestos fibers.

Although the adverse effects of asbestos on health had been pointed out from an early date, it was not until 2006 that the government totally banned its use, lagging far behind Europe and the United States. It is inevitable for the government to be criticized for its disregard for the health and safety of the people.

Diseases caused by asbestos have a long incubation period and are called a “silent time bomb.” The number of victims of asbestos-related diseases is likely to increase in the future, as the diseases may develop 20 to 50 years after inhalation.

Currently, in addition to recognizing the illnesses as work-related, victims can receive benefits based on the law for asbestos health damage relief enacted in 2006. However, the level of benefits is low because the compensation is not based on the liability of the government or building material manufacturers.

The plaintiff side is proposing that the government and building material manufacturers create a fund to compensate the victims. Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Norihisa Tamura, who met with the plaintiffs, said that he would set up an occasion to discuss this.

The Supreme Court is expected to make a unified decision on the responsibility of building material manufacturers in the spring of 2021 at the earliest.

About 1,000 people are certified as suffering from work-related accidents caused by asbestos every year. Half of them are construction workers. It is desirable to set up a mechanism to provide prompt relief outside of lawsuits.

The buildings in which asbestos was used are aging, and demolition is expected to peak around 2030.

In order to prevent workers at demolition sites from inhaling asbestos, the government needs to announce the dangers anew and take thorough measures to prevent its dispersal.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Dec. 31, 2020.