Shipbuilding workers win suit on asbestos pneumoconiosis

Shipbuilding workers win suit on asbestos pneumoconiosis

On March 31 last, eight former shipyard workers who had filed a suit for damages against their employer for asbestos-induced pneumoconiosis reached a favorable settlement out of court. The shipbuilding company, Sumitomo Heavy Industries Ltd., agreed to pay the victims a total of \108 million in compensation.

This favorable settlement, however, was only attained after many years of struggle by these now aged people suffering lung disease. Before the settlement was reached, one of the plaintiffs died, despite his wish to see the company apologize for destroying his health. Mr. Sakuma, who was leader of the group, also died several days after the settlement was reached--as if he had accomplished his mission.

The shipyard where they once worked is in Yokosuka city, about one and a half hours journey by train from Tokyo. As a navy yard was located there since before the War, the city has been historically known for its military base and shipbuilding industry. After the War a US Navy base replaced the Japanese one there, and Sumitomo Heavy Industries--one of the most important Japanese shipbuilders--continued its business there. In the shipyard a huge amount of asbestos had been used to isolate ship structures, and the plaintiffs in the suit were, among other workers, exposed to the hazardous dust for many years. This settlement virtually signifies that the company has recognized that the workers' disease has resulted from its neglecting to prevent inappropriate exposure to asbestos in its shipyard.

This suit can be distinguished by three characteristics:

While many pneumoconiosis damage suits have been filed against the coal and other mining industries, this is the first case which called a shipbuilding or heavy industry company to account for inducing pneumoconiosis in its workers, Now that coal and mining industries are dying out, these suits are all retrospective. The present case, however, has prospective implications because it will urge the shipbuilding industry--which is and will remain active--to secure safe and healthy workplaces for its workers.

Secondly, whereas most of the damage suits up to now were filed against asbestos manufacturing companies, this case called into question the responsibility of the company which was a 'user', not a 'manufacturer' of asbestos. In fact the retired workers focused on the fact that the company had taken no effective measures to prevent exposure to the asbestos used for shipbuilding. Since asbestos have been widely used in various industries, this case has paved the way for relieving pneumoconiosis victims who have been exposed to it.

Thirdly, a labor union, organizing active workers in shipbuilding, has been supporting the retirees in what is a very rare example in Japan of a damage suit against a company. This case represents successful solidarity between retired and active workers. In the final stage, the discussion between the union--the Uraga Chapter of the All Japan Shipbuilding and Engineering Union--and the company, turned virtually into a settlement negotiation, which led to indemnification comparable with those of other pneumoconiosis cases. The union and the plaintiffs consider that their task is to enhance the compensation agreed by the company for other retired workers and to extend the compensation agreement to subcontracted workers.

One plaintiff commented: "our successful case is not the end of an unresolved problem, but the beginning of activities to bring into light the asbestos pollution in the shipbuilding industries."

JOSHRC NEWSLETTER No.10 (July, 1997)

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