Ex-tunnel workers to settle lung disease lawsuits in Japan

The Japanese government agreed to a negotiated settlement with hundreds of former tunnel workers who contracted lung disease while working on state-ordered projects, news reports said Monday.

Health Ministry and other officials signed documents with the plaintiffs' representatives agreeing to the settlement which would see the former workers withdraw their claim for compensation, Kyodo News agency reported.

In return, the government would ensure strict health and safety measures for tunnel workers, the report said.

The first formal settlement is expected to come Wednesday at a Tokyo court session, with similar actions to follow in the 10 other courts where the suits have been filed, it said.

Health Ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.

Some 970 plaintiffs have been involved in 11 similar suits related to tunnel construction projects from the late 1940s through the 1990s that have been filed around the country, Kyodo said. Four of the suits have already been decided in favor of the plaintiffs, although the government has appealed the rulings.

The plaintiffs suffered from pneumoconiosis, a class of respiratory illnesses including black lung disease and silicosis that are caused by inhaling mineral dust, often in mines.

Under the expected settlement, the government would tighten measures to reduce the risk of workers contracting the disease, including making it mandatory to assess the density of dust at tunnel construction sites and shortening working hours, Kyodo reported.

In return, the plaintiffs would give up the right to claim damages totaling 3.2 billion yen (US$25.9 million; EUR19.45 million), for their suffering, Kyodo said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his condolences to several plaintiffs at his official residence Monday morning.

"We will pursue strong preventive measures so that the plaintiffs' efforts will have not been in vain. I have renewed my resolve to ultimately make Japan a country that will not allow this problem to occur," Abe said.

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