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Workers' compensation cases at a record high in fiscal 2016: gov't report

In this photograph taken in July 2015, the late Matsuri Takahashi climbs Mount Fuji during her training as a new worker at Dentsu Inc. (Photo courtesy of Takahashi's family)

Amid government efforts to combat "karoshi," or death from overwork, fiscal 2016 saw a record number of claims and certifications for workers' compensation, a health ministry report has revealed.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare on June 30 released a summary of the state of compensation for work-related injury or death for fiscal 2016. During the fiscal year, claims stemming from mental illness rose by 71 from the previous year, for a total of 1,586. The labor ministry certified 498 of those cases, 26 more than the previous year. Both the number of claims and the number of certifications were record highs.

    The number of work-related suicides or attempted suicides due to mental illness, however, fell by nine for a total of 84. This figure includes Matsuri Takahashi, a new employee at advertising giant Dentsu Inc. who was 24 years old at the time of her death. Decisions to issue compensation based on power harassment, such as "extreme harassment, bullying and violence" overtook the number that were based on "large changes to content or amount of work."

    Claims for workers' compensation due to brain or cardiac illnesses also rose for the second year in a row to 825 cases, up 30 cases from fiscal 2015. Of those, nine more cases were certified for a total of 260 people. Work-related deaths from brain or cardiac illnesses increased by 11 cases to a total of 107.

    For the ministry to deem an overworked person eligible for compensation, that person must have worked roughly 100 hours in the month directly before the appearance of their respective diseases, or have worked a monthly average of over 80 hours of overtime for a period of two to six months before -- the so-called "death by overwork line."

    The government is set to revise the Labor Standards Act to set limits on overtime to match the death line starting fiscal 2019, but among the 84 suicides and attempted suicides and 107 deaths by brain or cardiac illnesses reported in fiscal 2016, families in 37 and 12 cases, respectively, were awarded compensation even though the person did not meet the "death line" criteria.

    Takahashi died in December 2015, and her passing was certified as a work-related death in September 2016. A labor standards inspection office confirmed that she had worked roughly 105 hours of overtime in the month directly before her death, and listed the main reason for the allocation of the compensation as a large change in the content or amount of work she was given.

    "It's a truly sad reality that this many people lost their lives because of their work," Takahashi's 54-year-old mother Yukimi commented through her lawyer. "The pain of losing a precious family member can never be healed. I hope that the dreams, aspirations and lives of these hardworking people will no longer be stolen," she said.

    When examining the labor ministry report by industry, the number of deaths among vehicle drivers and construction workers stands out just as in the previous year. Even after the revised Labor Standards Act goes into effect in April 2019, at the earliest, these industries will continue to be exempt from limits on overtime for a period of five years. The vehicle driving and construction industries were exempted because of a possible "strain on personnel management at small- and medium-sized companies," among other reasons.

    "If we want to eliminate deaths from overwork, it is crucial to not make industry exceptions," commented executive director Hiroshi Kawahito of the National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi.

    Of the 107 work-related deaths due to brain or cardiac diseases, 35 cases involved truck drivers for mail or other transport companies, making the driving industry the most deadly for the second year in a row. There were also six suicides including attempts related to mental illness. Construction came in second deadliest with seven brain or cardiac deaths and 16 suicides and attempted suicides.

    "It just provides more evidence that exceptions to overtime rules are extremely dangerous," Kawahito said.

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