Traumatic deaths and injuries have become part of the work life of the ship breaking workers in Sitakunda. By dismantling around 47.20 per cent of world vessels, Bangladesh became the world's top destination for retired ships. A report 'Review of Maritime Transport 2019' by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) revealed that India (25.6 per cent), Pakistan (21.5 per cent) and Bangladesh make up (70-80 per cent) of the international recycling market for ocean-going vessels. These three countries have high needs for scrap metal. In Bangladesh, the steel from these recycled ships is used in mills where it is rerolled to support the immense growth of construction works. The bulk material sold for breaking comes from oil tankers, bulk carriers and container ships.
Bangladesh Ship Breakers and Recyclers Association reported that 221 ships were brought for demolition in 2015, 250 ships in 2016, 214 ships in 2017, and 221 ships in 2018. The industry supplies 60-70 per cent raw materials to the re-rolling mills of the country. The inland water vessels and other lighter vessels are also made from this salvaged steel.
The industry is located in Sitakunda, Chittagong on a 10 km-long stretch of seashore. It employs about several thousand workers directly, and several times more people are employed in related industries or supported through downstream businesses.
Ship breaking is the process of dismantling a retired vessel's structure. Conducted on the seashore, it includes a wide range of activities, ranging from removing all gear and equipment to cutting down and recycling the ship's structure. In addition to steel, recycled items such as engines, generators, boilers, electrical parts, furniture, plumbing fixtures, refrigerators, air-conditioners have a good market in Bangladesh. Untrained and desperately poor, the workers in the yard work without protective clothing, respirators, hard hats or boots, and or any other safety equipment that would be considered minimal requirements in a first-world country.
The structural complexity of ships makes ship breaking a challenging process and presents safety, health, and environmental hazards. Improper access to vessels and confined spaces increases the risk of falls and crushing injuries, as well as deaths from explosions and asphyxiation. Most of the injuries in these yards are likely falls, cutting and piercing, struck against, struck by falling objects, overexertion, or from fire and flame. Hazardous materials are used in ship construction and repair and are often contained in fuel and cargo residues. Hazardous materials include flammable or combustible residues, cargo residues, paints (containing lead, cadmium, tin, or copper, polychlorinated biphenyl), asbestos, foam insulation, electrical equipment and wiring, biological hazards and fire protection system. Other health hazards include noise, radiation, and temperature-related hazards. Improper use or lack of maintenance of tools and equipment result in many worker injuries.
Occupational and environmental research studies on ship breaking hazards are almost non-existent primarily because these industries operate in developing countries like Bangladesh. About 1,000 workers died in accidents or from exposure to toxic waste so far at the ship breaking yards in Sitakunda according to a report prepared by Greenpeace in association with the International Federation for Human Rights and a local Chittagong based NGO. It also alleged that several hundred more workers fall sick every year by inhaling toxic fumes at the scrap yards. The report counted the death figure mainly on the basis of news items published in national dailies.
A large number of injury and fatality incidents remain unreported as the workers who are severely sick quit or are forced to leave or might not report for fear of losing their job. As there is no registry kept for the workers, and most of them are hired on a need basis or by a labour contractor, it is hard to track fatality or injury cases. There are allegations of hiding dead bodies of workers who have died on the job, or of bribing the local media or police not to report fatalities.
The workers mostly cannot seek proper medical attention except the free, low quality public hospital care and can not afford to buy prescription drugs. They are not covered by any health or workers insurance or compensation system. For occupational diseases, most of the workers do not know if it is work-related, and proper diagnosis and causal relationship is impossible to establish because of inadequate facilities at any hospital or laboratory in the country. As the employers or the labour contractors do not take any responsibility for such disease, injury or fatality, the workers and their family take the full burden of the medical and economic costs in addition to the pain and suffering.
Ship breaking also poses large environmental risks because in Bangladesh the labour, safety and environmental laws are not sternly enforced. The ship breaking industry creates numerous hazards for the coastal and marine environment. Water pollutants generated during ship-breaking results in changes in water quality and affect marine-systems in the inter-tidal zone. Ship breaking releases many unsafe pollutants into the waters and seabed. While most of the oil is removed before a ship is scrapped, sand used to mop up the remaining oil is thrown into the sea. High concentrations of oil and grease are then found in the coastal waters, contaminating marine ecosystems.
The coastline in Sitakunda is now regularly wrapped in fumes because ship fuel remnants and lubricating oils are used to burn non-salvageable material. Solid waste strewn on the shore also finds its way into the sea. Airborne asbestos fibres impact not only the workers, but also residents of adjacent communities.
With the workers, the local community also suffers by inhaling polluted air, drinking contaminated water, consuming fish from the water bodies, and eating vegetations grown in the vicinity. There are no estimates of the number of individuals potentially affected in the adjacent communities, but is likely many times the number of workers actually working in the yards, and includes families, related industry workers and their families plus a large number of others who make their living providing goods and services to the shipbreaking yard workers.
Asbestos, a potent carcinogen, is known to pose a serious risk to communities associated with asbestos-using industries. Asbestos can be introduced into the community environment by air currents (for example on-shore winds blowing particles from the shipbreaking yards into neighbouring housing) or on the clothes or bodies of workers. For example, Mesothelioma cases in non-workers in North America have been associated with the laundering of contaminated clothing, and even the cutting of contaminated hair.
Informal sectors employ a sizable proportion of Bangladesh's workforce. Workers are exposed to both traditional and complex patterns of occupational hazards. While there is an increasing recognition of the importance of the role of informal industries in the development of the economy, workers' occupational safety and health conditions continue to give rise to concern. In Bangladesh, occupational safety and health legislation do not extend inspection coverage to informal industries. Such enterprises, which are often classified under the informal sector, are characterised as unregulated and unprotected. The relatively large number of workers employed by such industries and their high turnover render any useful occupational safety and health surveillance and follow-up work difficult. This results in inadequate recognition, detection, and control of occupational and environmental hazards, and makes the diagnosis and treatment of chronic occupational ailments a formidable undertaking.
Hasnat M. Alamgir is Professor, Department of Pharmacy, East West University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.