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Abnormally high death rates observed during cleanup of record snowfall in Japan

The roof of an elementary school building in the city of Yokote, Akita Prefecture, is seen being cleared of snow by members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) on Jan. 6, 2021 in this image taken by a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter. Due to the heavy snowfall, it's become difficult for individuals to remove snow on their own, and the GSDF have been called in to numerous areas. (Mainichi)

Deaths are rising sharply among people engaged in clearing work following this winter's record snowfall in Japan. Data collected by the Mainichi Shimbun current to Jan. 15 shows that already 59 people have died this season.

    Already the number of dead has surpassed the figures seen per season in recent years, and it's increasing at an uncommonly fast pace. People aged 65 or older make up about 80% of the deceased. With the heart of snow season yet to begin in earnest, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is calling for people to observe thorough safety measures when clearing snow.

    The data on the number of fatalities was collected from the 24 prefectures designated as heavy snow areas by the national government. It was based on investigations by reporters, police announcements and other information pertaining to accidents between Dec. 1, 2020, and Jan. 15, 2021, that took place during snow clearance work (including incidents believed to have happened during such kinds of labor).

    Deaths were recorded in 12 prefectures. When broken down by location, the most, 13, occurred in Niigata Prefecture in central Japan. Next were the northern prefecture of Akita with 10, and the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido and Yamagata Prefecture, south of Akita, each recorded nine fatalities. The central prefectures of Fukui and Toyama had six fatalities and one death, respectively. The data indicates deaths are concentrated on the Sea of Japan coast. Additionally, prefectures from the country's north, center and west all recorded between one and three deaths. They were Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Gunma, Gifu and Hiroshima prefectures.

    The 59 deaths represent a loss seven times that of fiscal 2019, when record low snowfall saw eight people die, and already exceed the 23 deaths in fiscal 2015, 45 in fiscal 2016, and 40 in fiscal 2018. There are fears that the season will cross the 100 threshold, which hasn't happened since the huge snowfall in fiscal 2005 when 113 people died; the most since the start of the Heisei era (1989-2019).

    The roof of an elementary school building in the city of Yokote, Akita Prefecture, is seen being cleared of snow by members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) on Jan. 6, 2021 in this image taken by a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter. (Mainichi)

    Among the accidents with clear causes, a remarkable number have come about from people falling while cleaning snow off of roofs, with the Mainichi Shimbun's totals showing at least 21 deaths. On Jan. 5, a 74-year-old man died after falling from the about 7.2-meter-high roof of the two-story wooden workshop attached to his home and hitting his head in the Niigata Prefecture city of Nagaoka.

    According to police, the man was clearing snow without a safety rope or helmet, and the snow had almost completely melted in the spot where he fell due to a snow-clearing pipe installed in the ground.

    Meanwhile, six people have also died following accidents occurring while handling snow-clearing machinery. In the Akita Prefecture city of Yurihonjo on Dec. 19, 2020, an 88-year-old man was found dead after being pinned under a domestic-use snow-clearing machine. There are constant reports of incidents in which people get hit by or caught in snowplows or snow blowers and die, and the Consumer Affairs Agency is urging caution from the public.

    According to the land ministry, other kinds of causes of death involving snow-clearing work include people getting stuck in snow that has fallen from roofs, and individuals falling from ladders.

    The ministry is urging people to exercise certain points of caution, including putting up safety ropes and using safety harnesses, wearing helmets, only doing work when two or more people are present, and being cautious of snow falling from roofs.

    (Japanese original by Mayuka Ikeda, Niigata Bureau, Inomori Marika, Akita Bureau, and Yoshitaka Yamamoto, City News Department)

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