Toxic Ships, Dying Workers
News released last week by organizations nearly 5,000 miles apart confirm the existence and scale of an unfolding disaster in shipbreaking on tidal beaches in South Asia which accounted last year (2016) for 87% of all tonnage dismantled. Research by the Brussels-based NGO Shipbreaking Platform (the Platform) and the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE) revealed multiple failures by the shipping industry to safely manage the disposal of end-of-life vessels and the deadly impact of hazardous working practices on the lives of shipbreaking workers. According to the Platform Director Patrizia Heidegger:
A jaw-dropping 84% of all European end-of-life ships ended up in either India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Beaching yards are not only well known for their failure to respect international environmental protection standards, but also for their disrespect of fundamental labour rights and international waste trade law. 1
Deaths and debilitating injuries at these unregulated workplaces are commonplace with explosions, fires and exposures to lethal substances such as lead, mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and asbestos routine occurrences. Conditions in Bangladeshs yards are known to be the worst; in 2016, 22 workers died with a further 29 suffering serious injuries
At a press conference in Dhaka on February 2, 2017, the OSHE issued the findings of an outreach program conducted at diagnosis camps in July 2016 and January 2017 to examine shipbreaking workers in Sitakunda, Chittagong district (see report: Asbestos Lung Disease Check-up Camps for Ship Breaking Workers in Bangladesh). Of the 101 workers assessed by the medical team of five doctors and three staff, 40 were diagnosed with asbestosis and six were designated as more than 60% disabled by the disease. Details of the medical tests conducted, the diagnostic criteria followed, the treatment plans proposed and the recommendations made were shared with journalists, many of whom reported on this program via English language and Bengali media outlets.2 The article headlined: Govt urged to improve health facilities for shipbreaking workers which appeared on February 3 was typical in reporting the call by Saki Rezwana, Chair of the OSHE, on the government to step up its care for shipbreaking workers by providing:
a dedicated occupational clinic [to integrate] primary care based on OSHE model clinic for diagnosis and treatment of asbestosis amongst ship breakers. Government staff including doctors and nurses can be trained by doctors Shubro, Ahad and Murli. The logistics for this training can be arranged by OSHE.
An article in the Dhaka Tribune on the same day focused on the lack of medical equipment and expertise for treating asbestosis in Bangladesh. According to one of the projects medical experts Dr Faizul Ahsan Shubro the Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association in Chittagong has no facilities for asbestosis treatment despite the fact that ship-breaking workers are at high risk of contracting this disease.
At the Dhaka news conference, the OSHE reiterated its collaboration with trade unions and other partners in the campaign to ban asbestos in Bangladesh. The ubiquity of asbestos-containing products on ships now being scrapped also makes this a high priority issue for Platform Director Patrizia Heidegger who said in an interview on February 6:
The fact that asbestos has been widely used in shipbuilding is no secret. The shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh and elsewhere are knowingly exposing their workers to the hazard. There is no proper identification of the dangerous material when the ships are imported into Bangladesh with fake certificates claiming the ships are free of hazardous waste. Workers remove and handle asbestos-containing materials with no knowledge of the health risk involved. Furthermore, there is no landfill to dispose of asbestos so the removed materials are either dumped or re-sold exposing also local communities to the danger. This is a scandal and the Government must finally crack down on this malpractice.
February 7, 2017
1 Press Release. Platform Publishes List of Ships Dismantled Worldwide in 2016. February 1, 2017.
2 Govt urged to improve health facilities for shipbreaking workers. February 3, 2017
Mahmud T. Asbestos: The slow poison killing ship-breaking workers. February 3, 2017.
Also see reports in Bengali: