Introducing The Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center
Interview with Director Furuya Sugio
by Takahei Masahito
from APWSL JAPAN, No.29, May 1998
How did you start this center ?
The organization was already in existence as of May 1990. Sohyo and Churitsu Roren (union federations) had created the Japan Occupational Safety Center (JOSC) and Chuoh Tansan was funding it. When Sohyo was dissolved to become part of Rengo, the JOSC was also disbanded, as were many local level JOSCs. Since Rengo had no intention of setting up new JOSCs, some of the remaining JOSCs, which had kept their activities alive without any union backing, got together and talked. After two years, they decided to create their own network. They formed the Association of Institutes for Community and Occupational Health in Osaka, which has what you might call a sibling relationship with JOSC. This center moved to Tokyo and opened the present Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center (JOSHRC). Back then I was working for the Kanagawa Prefectural Work Hazard and Occupational Disease Center. I was asked to be the director of the new center for a three year period, and I have been the director ever since.
Right around that time, an independent advisory committee, the Labor Standard Law Research Committee, proposed a large-scale revision of the Unemployment Insurance Law, which would have weakened it by, among other things, setting a limit on unemployment benefits of one and a half years regardless of conditions. The Committee specifically made their move at a time when we were too poorly organized to do anything to oppose them. But Tansan, Prefectural Hyogikai (local coalitions of unions), Local Occupational Safety Centers and the Labor Law Lawyersユ group saw how bad the committeeユs proposal was, and managed to stop them before it became a bill. At the final stage, we and the Committee attended a hearing, and we halted their move by managing to show that there were critical problems in the Committeeユs report. Through this process, we formed our network, which gave us lots of confidence and led us eventually to create a national role for the Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center.
What are the daily activities of your center ?
The most important activity is publishing our monthly magazine, which we do for the purpose of compiling and disseminating information. We also provide educational training. For example, we have Occupational Safety Schools at the local level, which incorporate our philosophy in their training. That is, instructors do not lead courses, but encourage participants to develop solutions by themselves from their own experiences. We call this type of training the メenabling approach.モ Every year in East Tokyo, around thirty people spend three days and two nights in training, and then inspect real job sites on the last day This way they can notice the fine points involved in good on-site safety practices, and come up with solutions when they find problems. Professional instructors remain solely advisors.
What is the most common occupational hazard in Japan ?
Thirty percent of work-related accidents are traffic accidents. The rest are on-site accidents such as falling from high buildings or getting fingers caught in press machines. Other occupational hazards include lower back pain and strained backs. Traditional industrial hazards like dust-related lung damage and repetitive motion disorders are also common. Relatively new problems include karoshi (death from over work), mental stress, and occupation-related cancers. These cancers are a problem that is just emerging 20-30 years after the actual work people did in 1970s when all those hazardous chemicals were being widely used. A typical example is asbestos, which causes lung cancer and mesothelioma. Asbestos-related diseases are one of our biggest problems, and the issue has become an topic of concern internationally. France, for example, recently became the eighth country in Europe to ban the use of asbestos. In Britain, too, it has become a big controversy. Nobody realizes this, but Japan is completely unique in the world in remaining a major consumer of asbestos. In time, the entire EU is going to shift to ban the use of asbestos. In the United States, the EPA tried to ban the use of asbestos in the 1980s, but their proposal was defeated because the US and Canadian industry sectors and the Canadian labor unions opposed it and filed a suit against them. Nevertheless, asbestos use in the States had dropped to virtually zero -- less than 30,000 tons a year as early as ten years ago. Japan still uses 200,000 tons a year, a huge amount by world standards.
What are your international activities ?
In 1989 before this Center was officially formed, our Doctor Yoshiomi Tenmyo was invited to the Asian Occupational Safety and Health Workshop in Hong Kong. Our second chairperson, Mr. Masazumi Harada, has communicated with a wide range of people in Asia regarding the Minamata Disease (a disease caused by mercury poisoning). Through these contacts, we have developed strong ties with Asian countries. In particular, we exchanged human resources with Hong Kong and India, and three times with South Korea. We have come to realize that every country has an organization like ours. The United States has more than 20 Committees for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH). Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy all have institutions quite similar to ours. Europe holds the Work Hazards Confer-ence every two years, and we have represented Japan three times.
Our exchanges with Asia and Europe strengthen my opinion that our work has a lot in common with theirs. In the case of the asbestos problem, for example, it was a great help to us to know the history of Europeユs efforts to tackle the issue, a history which the Japanese press had more or less ignored. Conversely, we thought that the information we had accumulated might be useful to people in other parts of the world, so we started to publish an English newsletter in 1992. Also, we opened a web site on the Internet last spring. (http://www.jca.ax.apc.org/joshrc/)
We started our relations with our Korean counterpart when they asked us for information to help them create a Karoshi Consulting Center. We went there right away and did what we could. But as a matter of fact, their record on winning court disputes regarding Karoshi is far superior to ours. The Korean Democratic Labor Union went on strike last year and fought not only for wage raises but also the right to refuse jobs involving high risks, although Japanese press only reported it as awage dispute. Likewise, people in countries throughout Asia want to get information on our activities, thinking that Japan must be ahead of them, but more often than not they have gotten better results. So we have come to rely on international exchanges a great deal these days.
[This article was translated by Wada Yuko and revised by Tim Stuhldreher. ]
JOSHRC NEWSLETTER No.15 (May, 1998)
INTRODUCTION <- -> INDEX
Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center (JOSHRC)
Z Bldg. 5F, 7-10-1 Kameido, Koto-ku, Tokyo 136-0071, Japan