The ship-recycling industry has long been under pressure to reform health and safety. Now, it seems that slow progress is finally being made to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries.
Mohammed Ibrahim is just one of the many victims of ship recycling, also known as ‘shipbreaking’. The 35-year-old fitter at Khawja shipbreaking yard in Chattogram, Bangladesh, was killed on 25 December 2020 when he was hit by a piece of iron when dismantling the bulk-carrier Stellar Hermes. It’s only five years since 29 people died in a series of explosions on board the former supertanker Aces in what is considered the worst disaster in the history of global shipbreaking. A further 59 suffered severe injuries.
Breaking of large vessels, often many years old, not only exposes the workforce to a range of hazardous materials but can also release toxic and carcinogenic compounds into the environment: the environmental and human impacts of shipbreaking can be significant.
You could write a book about what is needed to reform OSH in shipbreaking – in fact, the International Labour Organization did just that in 2004, with its 223-page code of practice. The big question is, why has progress been seemingly so slow?
Based on underground information and local newspaper reports, the NGO Shipbreaking Platform claims that at least 11 workers lost their lives at South Asian shipbreaking yards in the past six months alone. This isn’t unusual. Since 2009, almost 7000 large vessels have been beached in South Asia, and more than 400 people have died while working on them.
Sustainability in OSH: The IOSH perspective
‘There’s a fundamental right to work in a safe and healthy environment – and there’s very little protection in ship recycling [in South Asia],’ says IOSH head of health and safety Ruth Wilkinson. ‘IOSH encourages a holistic approach to preventing deaths due to occupational injuries through multifaceted governmental and corporate prevention strategies,’ she says.
The way ships are recycled ties in with a new IOSH campaign around human capital and sustainability, which considers people and the OSH considerations and contribution to sustainable development.
‘It’s important we identify hazards and consider risks holistically,’ says Ruth, ‘from the design stage, to the build, then usage, end of life and disposal with “people” at the centre.
‘Thinking about sustainability reporting, are large organisations considering and disclosing information on social aspects, such as workforce and human capital? We need that circular thinking and action as human and social factors can interface with environmental factors and economic outcomes.’
Ingvild Jenssen is executive director and founder of Shipbreaking Platform, set up to coordinate the activities of environmental, human rights and labour rights organisations interested in ship recycling. She tells IOSH magazine that approximately 90% of world tonnage is broken down on only three beaches, in Pakistan (Gadani), India (Alang) and Bangladesh (Chattogram).
Shipbreaking Platform reports that Turkish ship recyclers – the main alternative if looking for yards that meet international standards – ‘have continued to improve practices, including aligning the legal framework with international environmental conventions’. Furthermore, the yards have ‘opened their doors to independent researchers, consultants and experts’. However, even in Turkey, concerns remain about the high accident rates and low awareness of occupational diseases at the Aliaga yards.
And so, while Turkey’s ship recycling yards meet European standards, it costs the ship owners significantly more to recycle there, and the main market for recycled steel is in South Asia. As such, most large ships at the end of their lives are sailed to one of these beaches and aimed at the sand. Once beached, they are dismantled using blowtorches, usually with a minimum of PPE, training or safety protocols.
The oily sand of the ship graveyards provides employment for thousands. It’s been likened to a gold rush for the local population, most of whom willingly accept that a job that might kill them is better than the alternatives. A large ship can keep 500 people in work for six months, and the money generated by shipbreaking feeds many more mouths in downstream industries, from steel rolling to scrapyards.
The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Hong Kong Convention (HKC) established minimum standards for the industry in 2009, but it has never entered into force. Ingvild explains: ‘The parties asked to implement this law are the flag states and the recycling states. Flags such as Comoros, St Kitts & Nevis and Tuvalu are particularly popular at end of life and well known for their poor implementation of maritime legislation. So where is the capacity or interest in implementing or stringently interpreting the convention?’
Even so, many consultancies have issued shipbreaking yards with ‘statements of compliance’ with the HKC, suggesting that things are improving. ‘The convention sets extremely low standards,’ says Ingvild. ‘Ninety of the yards in Alang have a statement and some have been audited several times by the European Commission, but none have been approved because there are still considerable problems, especially related to downstream waste management and the lack of a hospital in the vicinity of the yards in case of a serious accident.’
No Time to Lose: asbestos
IOSH continues to call for urgent action to tackle the huge global toll from work-related exposure to asbestos, which is estimated to cause more than 230,000 work-related deaths each year.
One of the issues that goes under the radar in shipbreaking is the amount of hazardous materials on board. Asbestos is common on older vessels, but also in newbuilds in the gaskets, for example.
All types of asbestos fibres are potentially harmful and IOSH believes that risk awareness and risk management principles should be embedded throughout national administrations, education and training systems worldwide, and in organisations, to track and manage this hazard.
It may take decades for exposure to lead to an asbestos-related disease, so it can be challenging to secure individual, corporate and national action on asbestos.
For free, practical resources, visit IOSH’s No Time to Lose campaign at notimetolose.org.uk/free-resources/asbestos-pack-taster
Flags of convenience
Even without the HKC, the EU Waste Shipment Regulation, the Basel Convention and many national laws ban the export of end-of-life ships containing asbestos and other toxic materials to non-OECD countries, yet most still find their way to South Asia.
The process that leads them there is far from transparent. ‘These vessels typically pass through cash buyers, who are basically scrap dealers,’ says Ingvild. ‘They reregister them to new owners, often anonymous postbox companies, then reflag the vessels to typically black- or grey-listed flags.’
Compounding this, in a joint investigation with the UK’s Finance Uncovered, the Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh has discovered that vessels often have false inventories of hazardous materials, claiming that the vessels are toxin-free.
Vessels often have false inventories of hazardous materials, claiming they are toxin-free
‘These false documents are made by the cash buyers,’ says Ingvild. ‘The lack of transparency, and the inability to hold companies to account when you don’t know who’s behind it, makes it extremely challenging for the authorities in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
‘If you sell to a facility in Turkey or the EU,’ says Ingvild, ‘you can make a business transaction directly with the facility. So these cash buyers are inherently linked to the beaching method and to the worst yards, and any attempts to say otherwise is greenwash, because their business model depends on the continued use of these facilities.’
The voyages of Marco polo
The cruise ship Marco Polo – belonging to UK-based Cruise & Maritime Voyages, which entered administration in 2020 – was sold at auction to an offshore company, HighSeas Ltd, for around £2m. After the sale, it was allowed to leave UK waters on the condition it would be used for further trading. HighSeas said the ship would be used as a floating hotel in Dubai. However, ‘the intended buyers refused to take delivery’ and after the change of ownership, the vessel was sold as scrap for £4m and headed for Alang. Marco Polo is believed to contain high amounts of asbestos.
Moving in the right direction
Not surprisingly, this view is disputed by the cash buyers. Dr Nikos Mikelis, who led the development of the HKC for the IMO and is now a non-executive director at GMS, the largest cash buyer of end-of-life vessels. He maintains that it is a ‘reasonable expectation that the HKC will enter force within the next few years’. He adds that Shipbreaking Platform has shown ‘a total lack of knowledge and interest to learn how shipping and ship recycling work. It is a “self-appointed judge”,’ he says. Furthermore, he says its campaigns are ‘more often than not, impractical or unworkable’.
Simon Christopher Bergulf, regulatory affairs director at global container company Maersk, agrees the market for ship recycling is still ‘dominated by substandard labour and environmental practices unchanged for decades’. He feels the onus is on the shipping and the ship-recycling industries to change this.
‘We urge our peers in the industry to show leadership to change the industry, becoming a driving force for safe and responsible, global ship-recycling practices,’ he says.
Ingvild can see progress: the Bangladesh and Indian governments recently banned the entry of mercury-laden floating storage and offloading tankers, for example, but doesn’t share Simon’s confidence in the industry leading change. She says: ‘There’s more awareness within enforcement authorities on the circumvention of international waste law. We’re seeing several criminal investigations.
Almost 7000 large vessels have been beached in South Asia, and more than 400 people have died working on them
‘Another opportunity lies within the new European Green Deal and the circular economy. There is engagement from pension funds, and large shipping banks are laying down demands in their loan agreements with shipping companies.’
She acknowledges that some yards have concreted secondary cutting zones, that there are more cranes and more hard hats. ‘But the primary cutting of the vessel is still conducted in the intertidal zone,’ she notes. So what can the OSH profession do to help clean up ship recycling standards globally?
‘I’d like to see organisations such as IOSH be more vocal on best practice and all the legislation that UK shipping companies need to follow when taking vessels apart – something that’s impossible to achieve when operating on a tidal beach,’ says Ingvild.
She also believes there’s an important role for OSH professionals around raising awareness of the hazards on vessels and the effects they can have on human health. She says: ‘These risks are being transferred to shipbreaking workers in developing countries. It’s high time double standards are curbed – and that risks related to hazardous wastes are managed where standards can guarantee best practice.’
With regard to South Asian yards, Simon adds: ‘OSH professionals need to engage locally and secure a presence throughout the dismantling to maintain high standards based on the stakeholders they represent and the stipulated requirements.’
Image credit | Alamy | Getty
Putting right past wrongs: Maersk takes the initiative
Global container company Maersk developed further its Responsible Ship Recycling Standard in 2016. This was the year that the North Sea Producer, which was part-owned by Maersk, was sold for scrap on a redployment basis to cash buyer GMS.
Unknown to Maersk, it eventually landed at Chattogram (formerly Chittagong) in Bangladesh. The case is under investigation. Once this came to light, Maersk apologised profusely and announced tightened procedures to minimise financial incentives for buyers to recycle irresponsibly.
Since then, Maersk has worked with six yards and recycled 14 vessels in Alang with no serious safety or environmental incidents. Positive changes also include:
- More than 35 external HSE audits from Class Lloyd’s Register
- More than 20 environment monitoring programmes and robust hazardous materials handling and disposal systems
- More than 30 code-of-conduct audits to verify compliance with laws on labour and human rights, including building ILO-compliant dormitories for 1200 workers.