Shipbreaking is often considered the most dangerous of all maritime work. Accidents and injuries are common. Many of these workers operate in Bangladesh, China, India, and Pakistan, but shipbreaking also occurs in the U.S., specifically at the Brownsville, Texas, international shipbreaking site.
What Is Ship Breaking?
Ship breaking is the act of breaking down, dismantling, or taking apart a ship. Shipbreaking is done to recycle, scrap, or sell the ship’s parts to make money. Steel is the primary material recovered from ships to sell and recycle.
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Somewhere between 200 and 600 large ships reach the end of their life spans and are broken down in this way each year. The main reason to retire a ship to the ship-breaking yard is that it costs too much money.
In addition to repairs and maintenance, older ships incur other costs like wages for the crew, port charges, and oil fees.
Ships are typically sold to a ship-breaking company or recycler to be broken down. The original company owning the vessel sells it in its entirety, and then the recycler can break it down in any way it wants.
Shipbreaking is something that cannot be done quickly or easily. It is labor intensive and requires a lot of man-hours:
- The process of ship breaking begins with draining a ship of any liquids.
- Then machinery, equipment, and fittings are taken out.
- Recyclers can sell batteries, copper wiring, engine oil, electronic dials, and portholes.
- Once there is nothing but a steel shell left, workers use gas cutters and welding torches to cut the ship apart, piece by piece.
Why Is Shipbreaking So Dangerous?
Shipbreaking may be the world’s most dangerous job for several reasons.
One is the risk to workers’ health. Shipbreakers may be exposed to chemicals left on the ship or used in its construction. Especially in older vessels, asbestos can be a problem, and inhalation of it can lead to mesothelioma, a type of cancer.
Workers may also be exposed to lead and other heavy metals, radiation from radium, and polychlorinated biphenyls, a toxic chemical.
Illness caused by exposure to dangerous substances is just one risk of ship breaking work. These workers are also at significant risk for injuries caused by accidents:
- Falling pieces of salvaged steel or machinery can cause severe injuries and death.
- Electric shocks, fires, and explosions are also possible.
- Workers are at risk of falling too. They may be working at great heights, trying to cut up large pieces of steel, challenging work that can easily lead to a fall.
Often, shipbreaking is done in hot climates and on sandy beaches. These conditions add additional risks to the job. Dehydration and heat stroke are real problems.
The ships are on the sand, so the ground cannot always support these huge structures. The shifting sand can easily cause them to collapse, and workers can get caught in these accidents.
Examples of Shipbreaking Accidents
Because it is so dangerous, shipbreaking is the source of many news stories about workers being hurt or killed in the maritime industry.
Many shipbreaking accidents occur in Bangladesh, where the country has been criticized for not having policies protecting these workers. Safety regulations are lax, so workers here get hurt and die regularly.
Shipbreaking Fatalities in Bangladesh
For example, a series of accidents in the spring of 2016 led to four fatalities over a few days. One day a thirty-year-old worker died instantly when a large steel plate fell on him. Four others were injured in the accident. One of these men died later from the injuries.
Within a few days, other accidents claimed two more workers and brought the death toll in Bangladesh ship-breaking yards to ten for just the first five months of 2016.
Shipbreaking Accident in Brownsville, Texas
Accidents happen not just in the shipbreaking yards of developing nations. In Brownsville, workers have been breaking boats for decades, and although health and safety regulations are much better here than in other countries, workers still do dangerous jobs.
In 1995, for example, a man was working in the dark, without any safety equipment, when he fell 30 feet into a tank. He landed on a cross beam and split his pelvis bone. It took hours to get him out. Unfortunately, he died from his injuries.
An explosion is a possibility and a concern for workers in any ship-breaking location. Because old ships are full of dangerous chemicals, many of which are flammable, fires and explosions are always significant concerns and a risky part of the job.
In 2015, a gas cylinder exploded in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and injured eight workers. The cause was thought to be a leak in the cylinder and a worker lighting up a cigarette.
Rights for Maritime Workers
Too many ship-breaking workers labor in locations with loose regulations, and the government does little to protect them from employers putting earnings above safety.
However, for workers in other shipbreaking yards, such as those in Brownsville, employers must meet certain safety, health, and environmental standards.
When they don’t, and workers get hurt, they have the right to sue, file claims for workers’ compensation, and get the money they need to get better and back to work. If you work in shipbreaking and got hurt on the job, a maritime lawyer can help.