Shipbreaking is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world according to the International Labour Organisation.
Taking a vessel apart is a heavy and hazardous industry due to the structural complexity of ships. On the South Asian beaches where more than 70% of the world’s tonnage is currently broken, unskilled workers, including children, are deployed by the thousands to break down the vessels manually. Carried out in large part by the informal sector, shipbreaking is rarely subject to occupational health and safety controls or inspections. Without protective gear – in baseball caps and flip flops, or boots if they’re lucky – young men cut wires, pipes and blast through ship hulls with blowtorches. They haul huge pieces of scrap metal using their bare hands. The muddy sand and shifting grounds of tidal flats cannot support heavy lifting equipment or emergency access, and accidents kill or injure numerous workers each year.
A CEMETERY FOR SHIPS AND MEN
The causes of death and injury at the shipbreaking yards in South Asia are many. Extremely heavy steel beams and plates that fall and crush workers under their weight, explosions, fire and suffocation are some of the most common. The situation is worsened by the fact that in the vicinity of the shipbreaking beaches there are no hospital facilities capable of providing the necessary treatment to severely injured workers. Many workers, who’s lives could have been saved, succumb to their injuries on the way to the nearest hospital.
It is difficult to know exactly how many workers have been killed or maimed at the shipbreaking yards, as many of them are migrants from poorer parts of the countries and not registered as working in the yards. Authorities and yard owners also deliberately suppress information to escape legal responsibility. Only in few cases are disabled workers given compensation to start a new livelihood. Most often, however, injured workers and their families are simply thrown into extreme poverty.
According to research by YPSA, more than 1.000 workers have died in shipbreaking yards since the 1980s in Bangladesh.
According to research by Toxics Watch Alliance, at least 434 people have died in Indian shipbreaking yards between 1991 and 2012. The Indian Supreme Court was alarmed when it compared the incidence of fatal accidents in ship breaking (2 per 1.000 workers) with the situation in mining, which is considered to be the most accident-prone industry (0.34 per 1.000 workers).
LONG-TERM HEALTH IMPACTS
Ships contain numerous toxic materials such as asbestos, oil residues, heavy metals, and toxic paints within their structure. In most cases, these hazardous substances are not identified and therefore harm workers unknowingly. Since little care is given to protecting the workers from being exposed to toxic fumes and materials during the cutting and cleaning operations, the risk of developing a fatal occupational disease at a shipbreaking yard is high. Asbestos dust, lead, organotins such as the extremely toxic organic tin compound tributyltin (TBT) used in anti-fouling paints, polychlorinated organic compounds (PCBs), by-products of combustion such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins and furans are found both on the yards and in the workers’ sleeping quarters located close by. Some cancer types and asbestos related diseases will only occur 15 to 20 years after exposure, and make many more casualties among former shipbreaking workers.
Most of the workers are forced to rent inadequate housing and live with their families in metal shacks or wooden huts in areas adjacent to the yards. The plight of the workers is further exacerbated by very limited access to health and welfare services and sanitary facilities. Even drinking water supplies are lacking.