Working to Die

The Japanese Labour Board ruled earlier this month that the death in January 2006 of a 45-year-old senior Chief Engineer on the Toyota Camry Hybrid Project was "karoshi" (death by overwork). He had been working more than 80 hours of overtime a month, including evenings and weekends, and making frequent business trips overseas. He died of a heart attack the day before he was to travel to the Detroit Auto Show to promote the hybrid car. Toyota has issued a statement that it would step up efforts to monitor the health of its workers.

Japan recognized karoshi in 1987, and has been logging instances ever since of healthy men in their 20s and older dying suddenly from heart attacks and strokes brought on by overwork. The practice of "voluntary overtime" is an established practice in Japanese society, one that is coming under increasing scrutiny. Just a few months ago, a Japanese court ordered the government pay compensation to the widow of another Toyota employee who died of heart failure in 2002 after working more 80 hours of unpaid overtime per month.