Shipbreaking activities, the process of dismantling an old-fangled vessel for disposal, are a regular practice in coastal areas of Bangladesh. Due to their gain-capacity, shipbreaking activities have great macro and microeconomic importance in the country’s economy. From meeting the increased demand for raw materials to the negative impact on the coastal area’s environment, these activities pose a wide range of influences, both positive and negative, on the country’s economy.
Though the importance of these activities is huge, the challenges are also raising eyebrows gradually due to the environmental impact of these activities. Started in 1969, the shipbreaking industry has earned a very prudent reputation for its profitability. But at the same time, its environmental causes are also becoming a vital issue to take note of. The refuse and discarded materials coming out of these industries are getting mixed with the water bodies of the oceans, rivers, etc. At the same time, the beach soil is also being contaminated due to getting mixed with these hazardous elements.
For its hazardous process, the shipbreaking industry has been condemned worldwide, as all the activities involved here are risky and dispose large amounts of toxic substances. Depending on the size and function of a ship, its unladed weight can range from 5,000 to 40,000 tonnes, with an average of over 13,000 tonnes. Steel accounts for 95% of this weight and is often coated with between 10 and 100 tonnes of paint. However, this paint contains hazardous substances such as lead, cadmium, organotin, arsenic, zinc, and chromium.
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In addition to hazardous paint, ships also contain a wide range of other toxic materials. These include sealants that contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as well as various types of asbestos that can weigh up to 7.5 tonnes. Furthermore, ships often carry thousands of litres of different oils, including engine oil, bilge oil, hydraulic and lubricant oils, and grease. Tankers, in particular, may hold up to 1,000 cubic meters of residual oil.
The majority of these materials are classified as hazardous waste under the Basel Convention, which is an international treaty designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations. As such, the scrapping of ships is a complex process that requires careful handling and disposal of hazardous materials to prevent harm to both human health and the environment. Unfortunately, in many parts of Asia, this process is still being carried out by hand, on open beaches, under extremely inhumane working conditions, which increases the probability of risks to the people engaged with the work of dismantling vessels.
According to a discussion paper by Paul Bailey, published by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the demolition of ships is “dirty and dangerous” by any standard. Workers involved in shipbreaking face numerous risks, including exposure to toxic substances such as asbestos and lead, as well as the risk of injury from handling heavy machinery and sharp metal parts.
According to a survey, more than 4000 workers of these yards have been killed over the past 20 years, and another 6,000 were injured, while working for these yards. According to a 2015 report by YPSA, the reason behind these fatal accidents is unconscious behaviour and a lack of monitoring and oversight by the governmental authorities.
Furthermore, the lack of safety regulations and poor working conditions in many shipbreaking yards exacerbate these risks. Workers in these yards often do not have access to proper safety equipment or training, and they are frequently exposed to dangerous working conditions without adequate protection.
The shipbreaking industry is associated with a range of hazards that pose a significant risk to workers. These hazards can broadly be categorized into two categories: intoxication by dangerous substances and accidents on the plots. This can result in work-related injuries and even fatalities. Among the accidents that occur in shipbreaking yards, toxic gas explosions are one of the most significant hazards. These explosions can occur when workers use torches to cut through metal parts of the vessel, which can release toxic gases and fumes. These gases can ignite and cause explosions that can injure or kill workers.
Another common cause of accidents in shipbreaking yards is the fall of heavy metal plates from upper decks that can be as high as 70 meters. Workers on lower decks are at risk of being struck by these plates and are at a heightened risk of injury and death if they are not wearing safety harnesses. Other accidents that can occur include workers being crushed by falling steel beams and plates, and electric shocks.
Why are these problems prevailing?
The entire scrapping process is still carried out manually, with little regard for worker safety. A lack of precautions and planning puts workers at risk, and the limited use of electricity for shipbreaking activities only compounds these risks.
In addition, the testing system for cranes, lifting machinery, and motorized pulleys used in the shipbreaking process is almost non-existent. This means that workers are using equipment that may be faulty or unsafe without even realizing it. Furthermore, ropes and chains recovered from broken ships are often re-used without being tested for strength or carrying capacity. There is no marking system in place to indicate the loading capacity of cranes and other lifting machinery, further adding to the risk of accidents. Untrained workers are often required to carry heavy pieces of iron sheets on their bare shoulders, a task that would be better suited to the lorries. They are not provided with the weight of the sheets or chunks they carry, and employers often ignore legal weight limits for workers, putting them at increased risk of injury. As a result, workers suffer from suffocative injuries and lung problems, which can cause a temporary or permanent loss of working capacity. Exposure to asbestos, for example, can lead to lung cancer and mesothelioma, while exposure to PCBs can cause damage to the immune system and reproductive system.
Steps needed to address the problems!
To address these risks, it is essential to implement strict guidelines and regulations for the safe handling and disposal of hazardous materials in the shipbreaking industry. This includes the proper cleaning and testing of ships before they are beached, as well as the use of appropriate protective equipment for workers. Regular health check-ups and monitoring should also be conducted to ensure that workers are not suffering from the long-term effects of exposure to toxic substances.
Furthermore, there should be a greater emphasis on promoting sustainable and environmentally friendly practices in the shipbreaking industry. This includes the use of non-toxic and recyclable materials, as well as the development of safer and more sustainable methods for dismantling ships.
In conclusion, the health risks associated with shipbreaking are significant and cannot be ignored. It is crucial that we prioritise the safety and wellbeing of workers in this industry by implementing proper safety measures, promoting sustainable practices, and providing the necessary support and resources to ensure that workers are protected from the harmful effects of exposure to toxic substances.