US Naval dockyard retirees question their employer's negligence
by Takashige Nishda
Kanagawa Occupational Safety and Health Center (KOSHC)
Since shipyard retirees won favorable out-of-court settlements against their employer Sumitomo Heavy Industries Ltd., in Yokosuka, west of Yokohama (see JOSHRC Newsletter No.10 July '97), there is another move to question an employers' negligence in providing a safe and healthy working environment, and claim compensation. In Yokosuka again, another major shipyard owner has been questioned-the US Navy.
20 victims claim Y250 million in compensation
On April 21, 1998, 17 US Navy base retirees and three bereaved families put in a claim for compensation against the Yokohama Defense Facilities Office (YDFO), one of the regional organizations affiliated with the Japanese Defense Agency. The claimants allege that their illnesses, and the deaths of their relatives were due to pneumoconiosis or lung cancer after many years of exposure to toxic dusts, including asbestos. In fact, all the victims are officially certified to be occupational asbestosis or lung cancer victims, and receive compensation payments from the government labor insurance scheme. The victims and bereaved families demanded that the US Navy or YDFO, which takes over the navy's liabilities, should pay additional indemnity to them, apart from the official insurance benefits. Among the deaths, there is evidence that two of them were due to asbestos-induced pneumoconiosis, or lung cancer associated with hospitalization or other treatment. The bereaved families are requesting survivors compensation as well as compensation for income lost. The remaining victims and bereaved family are claiming compensation for lost wages alone. The overall total is Y250 million, with Y40 million for bereaved family compensation, and Y8.75 million for average wages lost.
During Korea War, and other conflicts throughout the postwar period, Yokosuka has hosted a US Naval dockyard affiliated with the adjoining US base. There a large number of Japanese workers have been engaged in ship repair operations, or retrofitting using large quantities of asbestos. A large number of the victims worked as well in the warship repair operations, and were directly or indirectly exposed to asbestos when handling lagging used for boiler retrofitting and piping and during other refurbishing operations.
An epidemiological study revealed that although increased work in warship repair produced severer exposure to asbestos in the 1950's, essential measures including mask wearing, education, the installation of local exhausters, the isolation of dust-related operations and sweeping had not been taken until the early 1980's. The surviving victims say in their statements that during the Korea War (1950-1953), they had to repair night and day a large number of warships to be mobilized in the zones of conflict, without wearing any mask to prevent the heaviest asbestos exposure.
Most of the victims, organized by the Yokosuka Pneumoconiosis Victims Association, have been actively involved in a solidarity campaign for the above-mentioned shipyard workers'. In this sense, the out-of-court settlement and subsequent agreement between Sumitomo Heavy Industries Ltd. and the labor unions organizing the retirees over the extra compensation undoubtedly encouraged the former US base workers to face the overwhelming military establishment. From the initial steps, Kanagawa OSHC has been supporting the former US Naval dockyard workers in putting forward their claims. Our efforts will continue until their claims produce favorable results.
JOSHRC NEWSLETTER No.16 (Aug, 1998)
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