Making shipbreaking a safer craft
Each year between 200 and 600 large vessels are dismantled across the globe. For some, the ship breaking industry is their only chance of an income. There is, however, a lack of human and environmental safety and in some regions appropriate guidelines are practically non-existent. A European project has set out to change this.
In Aliaga, Turkey, near Izmir, a shipyard employs hundreds of workers to dismantle large ships. The ships are taken apart ashore on a concrete floor to prevent any pollution caused by remaining fuel or toxic waste. Most of the vessel can be recycled. Amongst the various recyclable components that make up the old ships is its primary construction material: steel. Recycled scrap metal, sent to melting plants, contribute 3 percent to Turkey's gross steel production.
To date there has been no successful implementation of international standards for ship dismantling. Methods and conditions differ drastically between countries. But before experts can introduce the necessary changes, they require a reliable database of information on different practices. With this in mind, the DIVEST project is currently establishing the foundations for such a body of quantified data. The EU project DIVEST (Dismantling of Vessels with Enhanced Safety and Technology) is based on studies done by the ship breaking community, as well as by public bodies. Real case studies offer an analysis of different aspects regarding the dismantling practice - aspects including social, technical, economic and environmental.
Over 80% of ship dismantling actually takes place in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Here manual labour is cheap and the profit is therefore high. In fact, scrapping a ship in Bangladesh, home to the lowest safety standards, can bring in almost ten times more profit than in Europe. Heavy machinery and concrete floors are not used, rather ships are dismantled on sandy beaches in dangerous conditions. Accident rates and occupational health risks are high; while the pollution with hazardous materials does not seem to be of great concern. Yet it is a very important industry for poorer regions, providing thousands of jobs. Furthermore, the extensive use of manual labour leads to more effective sorting and recycling.
Swedish researchers Gunnar Rosén and Ing-Marie Andersson have developed a method to measure various exposure levels, for example of toxic fumes. In the convenient form of a backpack, to be worn by a ship yard worker, they have integrated instruments for taking measurements for particles and dust that are sent back to their computer. A tube also measures the air within the breathing zone of the worker. Smoke levels are measured with wearable sensors and all the actions performed by the worker are captured with a video camera. Other types of data that can be measured include noise, solvents, heart rate, muscle activity, etc.
Swedish ship yard workers are protected from fumes by wearing breathing masks. However, in South Asian countries, smoke inhalation can be fatal for ship breakers. Analysis of measurements like those taken by Rosén and Andersson could lead to a reduction of exposure to fumes during ship wrecking practices, which could ultimately save lives.
South Asian governments need data like that being collected by DIVEST in order to call for improvements in working conditions. In the last few years, only India has shown real initiative in introducing an infrastructure for hazardous waste management, training and health care for workers. Similar developments in Pakistan and Bangladesh seem to be slower, but experts are optimistic that a change will come.