Govt bears heavy responsibility for failing to take measures on asbestos

The dangers of asbestos had been pointed out from early on, but the failure to take necessary measures led to the spread of harm. The government should take the Supreme Court’s ruling seriously and swiftly provide relief to the victims.

In a lawsuit filed by former construction workers and others seeking compensation on the grounds that they suffered from mesothelioma and lung cancer after inhaling asbestos dust used in building materials, the Supreme Court has ruled that the government and building material manufacturers are responsible.

The court ruled for the first time that the government’s failure to require workers to wear dust masks and to take other measures from 1975 to 2004 was illegal. The court also recognized that self-employed builders with no employees, who undertook contracts on their own as sole proprietors and were not covered by worker protection, are eligible to be compensated.

Japan has lagged far behind other countries in regulating asbestos. It is natural that the ruling pointed out that “the fact that the government failed to exercise its authority showed an extreme lack of rationality and was illegal.”

Manufacturers of building materials also bear a heavy responsibility. The ruling found that they should have labeled asbestos hazards on building materials, but failed to do so. The danger of asbestos was not recognized at work sites, and workers who inhaled asbestos dust without being aware of it are now suffering from serious illnesses.

Asbestos, which is inexpensive and has excellent fire resistance, was imported in large quantities in the 1970s to 1990s, and was used by many building material manufacturers for spraying materials and thermal insulation. Construction workers handled a variety of building materials at work sites, and it was difficult to identify which building material caused the health problems.

The ruling recognized the liability for compensation based on the logic that “a joint illegal act by multiple manufacturers has been established.” The Supreme Court apparently judged that the victims needed to receive relief.

The incubation period for asbestos damage is long, ranging from 15 years to 50 years, and the number of victims is expected to increase in the future. Based on the latest ruling, it is essential to establish a system that can provide relief to victims who have not participated in the lawsuit.

In response to the ruling, a ruling parties’ project team has compiled a unified settlement proposal in which the government will pay up to ¥13 million per victim. It is also considering the establishment of a program to provide benefits for relief of the victims. The plaintiffs’ side plans to accept the proposal.

The ruling parties also called on building material manufacturers to join the unified settlement proposal, but the manufacturers are said to have expressed reluctance. Seventy percent of the plaintiffs have already died. The government needs to hasten discussions with the manufacturers to provide relief to the remaining victims as soon as possible.

There has been no end to cases in which the harm caused by drugs and pollution increased due to delays in government measures. A situation in which people’s health and safety are at risk because of the government’s mistakes must not be repeated.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 18, 2021.