Toyoto Employee Worked to Death, Japanese Court Rules

by Medindia Content Team on  December 1, 2007 at 2:29 PM General Health News
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Toyoto Employee Worked to Death, Japanese Court Rules
More confirmation of karoshi or death due to overwork among Japanese.

A district judge has overturned the labour ministry's decision not to compensate the widow of a Toyota worker. The company had claimed the man had only logged 45 hours of overtime in the month before he died.

But the Nagoya district court ruled Friday that the employee had worked far more than that, said Yomiuri Online, a Japanese news website.

"We want to think of how to respond to this ruling by discussing it with relevant agencies," an official at the Toyota Labor Standards Inspection Office said.

The employee, who was working at a Toyota factory in central Japan, died of irregular heartbeat in February 2002 after passing out in the factory around 4 a.m.

"(The employee) worked for extremely long hours and the relationship between his work and death is strong," Yomiuri Online quoted Judge Toshiro Tamiya as saying.

Toyota said in a statement it would further improve the management of its employees' health.

Overworking is a serious issue in Japan, where an average worker uses less than 50 percent of paid holidays, according to government data.

In fiscal year 2005-2006, the labor ministry received 315 requests for compensation from the bereaved families of workers who died of strokes and other illnesses seen as work-related.

Virginia Tech University management professor Richard Wokutch has reported that "karoshi," or "death due to overwork," is one of the most controversial health issue in Japan. And there is an indication that Japanese companies may be exporting stressful work conditions to their overseas operations, he says.

"The problem with karoshi is it's ambiguous and it's political," says Wokutch. "Karoshi refers to a wide range of medical conditions believed to be work-related, that result in death, serious injury, or illness, and there have been several lawsuits by family members claiming someone has died from unusual stress at work. But there's a gray area. Was the person going to have the heart attack anyway? Or was death a result of overwork?

"People have used the term to refer to suicides, ulcers, insomnia, back pain, writer's cramp ... even impotence," he says. They believe that karoshi results not only from work conditions such as a fast work pace or long hours, but also from other, indirect factors, such as long commutes, cramped living spaces, and inadequate sleep and exercise.

"Given the imprecise definition of karoshi and the controversy over whether individual cases are work related, estimates of the number of karoshi cases vary greatly," Wokutch says. On the high end, the National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi estimates that excessive work contributes to the deaths of more than 10,000 Japanese workers each year. Official government figures are much lower (though there is no actual category for karoshi cases); the lowest estimates are based on the average of 620 karoshi claims for death or disability submitted each year since 1987.

In trying to make a judgment between the claim of 10,000 deaths and fewer than 700 claims filed per year, "you have to look at the statistics for death and injury from a variety of causes to determine which are most likely to be work-related, based on similar studies done in previous years in other countries," the researcher explains. "Because the Japanese are not a litigious people, we know that 700 is probably too low."

Wokutch also conducted research at Japanese auto plants in Japan and the United States -- not only to determine the extent of karoshi, but to look at whether stressful work practices are being exported to the U.S. He says similar maladies undoubtedly occur in other countries, but he did not know of any other country that classified such problems under a single rubric. "In the United States, the standards for determining whether a karoshi-like illness or fatality should be recognized as being work related would depend on the standards of the workers' compensation program in the state where the incident occurred."

Wokutch has found a high rate of cumulative trauma disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, among workers in Japanese auto plants in the U.S. These injuries can be a result of the fast pace and repetitive tasks of the assembly line.

"Cumulative trauma disorders are not as much of a problem in Japan," he says. One theory is that in Japan, the assembly line can be built to 'fit' the typical Japanese worker's size and strength. However, in the U.S., men and women of diverse size and strength make up the workforce. Another theory as to why there are fewer complaints of cumulative trauma disorders in Japan is "the Japanese may be more accustomed to working with pain," Wokutch suggests. "There is a sense that it is dishonorable to complain."

The Japanese have taken various steps to alleviate karoshi. The government has sponsored efforts to reduce the work week, encourage more leisure activities, and promote worker health. Still, Wokutch says, many of these measures are seen as mere "window dressing." At the same time, statements made by Japanese business and government leaders criticizing the work ethic in the United States and other Western countries have sent conflicting signals about the need to reduce work stress in Japan.

Source: Medindia

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