Ship-breaking: a hazardous work

Shipbreaking has grown into a major occupational and environmental health problem in the world. It is amongst the most dangerous of occupations, with unacceptably high levels of fatalities, injuries and work-related diseases. Shipbreaking is a difficult process due to the structural complexity of the ships, and it generates many environmental and safety and health hazards. It is carried out mainly in the informal sector and is rarely subject to safety controls or inspection. Workers usually lack personal protective equipment and have little training, if at all. Inadequate safety controls, badly monitored work operations and high risk of explosions create very dangerous work situations. Workers have very limited access to health services and inadequate housing, welfare and sanitary facilities further exacerbate the plight of the workers.

The world’s fleet of ships is about 90,000 vessels, and the average life of a ship is 20-25 years. The average number of large ships being scrapped each year is about 500-700, but taking into account vessels of all sizes this number may be as high as 3,000. Ninety percent of ship-breaking in the world is carried out in Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan and Turkey.

In addition to taking a huge toll on the health of workers, ship breaking is a highly polluting industry. Large amounts of carcinogens and toxic substances (PCBs, PVCs, PAHs, TBT, mercury, lead, isocyanates, sulfuric acid) not only intoxicate workers but are also dumped into the soil and coastal waters. An average size ship contains up to 7 tonnes of asbestos which is often sold in the local communities after scrapping. As the majority of yards have no waste management systems or facilities to prevent pollution, shipbreaking takes an enormous toll on the surrounding environment, the local communities, fishery, agriculture, flora and fauna. This naturally causes serious environmental damage with long-term effects for occupational, public and environmental health.

To address this problem, the ILO, International Maritime Organization (IMO) and Basel Convention of UNEP have produced their guidelines to deal with various issues in this area within their respective mandates and established a joint working group to co-ordinate their activities and cooperation. The diplomatic conference of the IMO has adopted a new international convention for the safe and environmentally sound recycling of ships in 2009.