Expand criteria for recognizing health problems connected to work

AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama
Workers are seen through cube-shaped office windows at the Shimbashi business district in Tokyo.

Employees’ health must not be undermined by excessive burdens. It is important to properly recognize work-related problems and use this to redress the situation.

A panel of experts at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has compiled a report calling for more flexible standards for recognizing work-related problems in the case of ailments involving the brain or heart. The ministry said it intends to revise the standards for the first time in about 20 years, based on the report.

In addition to cases including injuries and traffic accidents that occurred in the course of someone’s work, various ailments caused by working long hours over an extended period have become a problem in recent years. It is natural to review the criteria for recognizing work-related problems, based on medical knowledge.

Currently, when overtime work exceeds roughly 100 hours in the month prior to the onset of symptoms, or exceeds a monthly average of about 80 hours in the two to six months before symptoms appear, the ministry determines that there is a strong connection between the onset of symptoms and that person’s work duties. These criteria have been called the danger line for karoshi, or death from overwork.

The central government has said it takes factors besides overtime into account when recognizing work-related problems. However, there have been few cases involving less than 80 hours of overtime per month that were actually recognized as work-related — such cases accounted for only 10% of the total in fiscal 2020. People involved in this issue have said the implementation of the system is rigid and the hurdles for certification are high.

In its proposals, the expert panel said if a person worked overtime hours close to the koroshi line and their burden was heavy in other aspects than working hours, it is appropriate to recognize the case as work-related, even if the overtime hours do not reach the karoshi line.

As factors other than working hours, the panel specifically cites such examples as less than 11 hours between the end of one block of work and the start of the next, continuous work without days off, and work involving physical strain.

Labor standards inspection offices nationwide, which recognize work-related problems, should not make decisions by prioritizing overtime hours alone, but comprehensively evaluate the factors that led to the onset of a worker’s symptoms, in keeping with the specific situation.

The ministry said it is analyzing the situations of truck drivers, teachers and other school personnel, and members of the information technology, restaurant, medical services, construction and media industries, among others, based on indications that there are many cases of long working hours among them. Work environments should be improved as soon as possible.

Mental health is also a challenge to be tackled. In fiscal 2020, a record high of 608 people who suffered from mental illness due to stress at their job had their cases recognized as work-related.

In 2018, the government set a target of increasing to at least 80% by 2022 the percentage of business places that take measures such as setting up consultation systems for workers. However, the current rate is only 60%.

Smaller business places have been particularly slow to take such measures, and the ministry is cooperating with regional industrial health centers nationwide to support these steps. Each company needs to further raise their awareness about workers’ health management.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Aug. 19, 2021.