Earth & Conservation

A Deadly Blast Shows the Dangers of Ship Graveyards

Falling steel, explosions and toxic fumes are all in a day's work at the world's most dangerous job.

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At least 17 people died and dozens more suffered injuries following an explosion on Tuesday at the Gadani ship breaking yard in Pakistan. Over 200 employees were working on stripping down an unused oil tanker when the incident occurred at Gadani, one of the largest ship breaking yards in the world.

The tragedy marks the single worst accident in ship breaking history ever reported, but the industry is not exactly one that prioritizes worker safety, as explosions, falls and other hazards threaten laborers' lives every day, as Nicola Mulinaris with the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a coalition of environmental, human and labor rights organizations, explains.

"Shipbreaking has been declared the most dangerous job in the world by the International Labour Organization (ILO)," Mulinaris told Seeker in an e-mail. Workers do the entire job on a beach, an environment that's inaccessible to the kind of heavy machinery needed to cut steel. Instead, workers use blow torches to break ships down piece by piece and let gravity do the rest.

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Because of the methods used to tear down ships, large sections of the vessel crash down on the beach, often crushing workers below, Mulinaris said. Explosions and falls that injure or kill workers are also common in the industry. Protective gear, such as breathing masks to prevent workers from toxic fumes, and adequate training are not common in the industry, however.

And that's just what workers face in a typical day on the job. Over the long term, the exposure to toxic fumes, hazardous materials and unhealthy working and living conditions as a result of the job increase the risks of both debilitating and fatal health conditions, such as cancer or asbestosis - lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos.

Workers dismantle oil tankers by hand in the yards on the beach in Chittagong, Bangladesh. | ANDREW HOLBROOKE/Corbis via Getty Images

Workers in the industry in South Asia, where more than 70 percent of end-of-life ships are sold to substandard breaking yards, are paid less than $3 a day, working long hours without overtime or paid holidays. "No support is given to disabled workers to start a new livelihood, and the families are often thrown back into extreme poverty," Mulinaris said.

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In an industry that relies on doing toxic work on unprotected beaches, it's no surprise that ship breaking is a major source of environmental pollution as well. Debris, paint chips and other toxic byproducts of the breakdown process end up both in the water and the sand. Hazardous materials are often either illegally dumped or resold on local markets.

Ultimately, this is a case of an industry prioritizing profits over human safety and environmental sustainability. "Safe and environmentally sound ship recycling is possible. Sustainable alternatives already exist," Mulinaris writes.

Every years, around 1,000 large commercial ships are dismantled, representing millions of tons of scrap metal. With the European Union soon to publish a list of approved ship breaking facilities around the world, ship owners have an opportunity to take their business to sustainable services, and critics of the industry like the NGO Shipbreaking Platform are hoping that owners make such a course correction.

Photo: A ship explodes at the Gadani ship breaking yard in Pakistan. Credit: Xinhua/Stinger via Getty Images