Shipbreaking is dangerous work. It is the job of breaking down or demolishing a large ship to either dispose of or reuse the parts and materials. Most modern ships only last about 25 to 30 years and then they have to be recycled because of rust, corrosion, and metal fatigue. The ships become unsafe, but also become more expensive to operate because they require more repairs and maintenance. The maritime company that owns the ship can earn more from recycling such a ship.
The people who work this job are called ship breakers. Many of these workers operate in Bangladesh, China, India, and Pakistan, but ship breaking also occurs in the U.S., specifically at the Brownsville, Texas, international shipbreaking site. In an industry that his already one of the most dangerous, ship breaking is often considered the most dangerous of all maritime work.
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What is Ship Breaking?
Ship breaking is the act of breaking down, dismantling, or taking apart a ship. The purpose is to recycle, scrap, or sell the parts of the ship to make money. Steel is the main material that is recovered from ships to sell and recycle. 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 is costing too much money to operate. In addition to repairs and maintenance, 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 ship sells it in its entirety and then the recycler can break it down in any way it wants. Ship breaking 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 even 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.
The Dangers of the Job
Ship breaking may be the world’s most dangerous job, and there are several reasons for this. One is the risk to workers’ health. These people are exposed to whatever chemicals are left on board the ship or that were used in its construction. Especially in older ships, 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 type of chemical.
Illness caused by exposure to dangerous substances is just one risk of ship breaking work. These workers are also at great risk for injuries caused by accidents. Falling pieces of salvaged steel or machinery can cause serious 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, difficult work that can easily lead to a fall.
Often, ship breaking 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 fact that the ships are on sand means that 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 Ship Breaking Accidents
Because it is so dangerous, ship breaking is the source of many news stories about workers being hurt or killed in the maritime industry. Many of these accidents happen in Bangladesh where the country has been criticized for not having policies in place that protect these workers. Safety regulations are lax, and therefore, workers here get hurt and die regularly.
As an example, in spring of 2016 a series of accidents led to four fatalities over the course of a few days. On 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.
It isn’t just in the ship breaking yards of developing nations that accidents happen. In Brownsville, workers have been breaking ships 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, and unfortunately he died from his injuries.
For any ship breaking location, an explosion is a possibility and a concern for workers. In Chittagong, Bangladesh in 2015, a gas cylinder exploded and injured eight workers. The cause was thought to be a leak in the cylinder and a worker lighting up a cigarette. Because old ships are full of dangerous chemicals, many of which are flammable, fires and explosions are always big concerns and a risky part of the job.
Rights for Workers
Too many workers in ship breaking are laboring in locations where regulations are loose and the government does little to protect them from employers putting earnings above safety. For workers in other ship breaking yards, however, such as those in Brownsville, employers must meet certain safety, health, and environmental standards. When they don’t and workers get hurt, those workers have the right to sue, to file claims for workers’ compensation, and to get the money they need to get better and to get back to work.