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Eye Opener

Published: 04th Jul 2013 in OSA Magazine

With eye and head protection in focus, Patrizia Heidegger gives us an insight into the occupational hazards faced by workers in South Asia’s shipbreaking yards.

In 2012, more than 1,300 oceangoing ships were sold for breaking to recover steel. Only a minority of these end of life vessels were recycled in a safe, sustainable manner. About two thirds of these ships were simply run ashore on tidal beaches in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where authorities do not strictly enforce existing environmental and safety rules. Moreover, the day labourers who cut down these ships manually are usually unskilled and often not trained to properly use personal protective equipment (PPE).

Due to the lack of heavy lifting equipment, poor training of workers and foremen, inadequate security measures against falling from heights, and the disregard for PPE, accidents and exposure to hazardous substances are a major danger for workers in the shipbreaking yards of South Asia.

The ships’ structures contain well known toxic substances such as asbestos, heavy metals and organotins, as well as the extremely toxic organic tin compound tributyltin (TBT) used in anti-fouling paints, polychlorinated organic compounds (PCBs), byproducts of combustion such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins and furans. With regards to these hazardous materials, not enough care is given to the protection of workers’ health and safety.

Safety standards vary strongly between the shipbreaking yards in South Asia and ship recycling facilities elsewhere in the world, where adequate PPE is provided and its use is enforced. The situation is comparatively better in ship recycling yards in China and Turkey – the two other major destinations for end of life vessels. Both countries have prohibited the beaching method and display a higher grade of mechanisation. In addition, the use of PPE is more common and workers are usually provided with training. Working conditions are therefore less dangerous than in South Asia.

With regards to China, we currently lack independent reports and documentation on the actual use of PPE, as well as possible injuries and accidents in the yards. This article therefore focuses on the situation in South Asian shipbreaking yards, where both scientific and journalistic reports have covered different aspects of workers’ health and safety.

International regulations and guidelines

With regards to occupational health and safety for workers in the shipbreaking sector, the International Labour Organization (ILO) published guidelines in 2003, which should be used as a reference in all shipbreaking facilities.These guidelines also detail health and safety measures for eye and head protection.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted the Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships in 2009, which will be a legally binding treaty for all its state parties. Moreover, the IMO is developing further guiding texts such as the 2012 guidelines for ship recycling facilities.

The Convention has not yet entered into force, as it has not been ratified by the required number of states; however, ship recycling facilities are already trying to comply with its obligations, with more and more shipowners demanding the certification of yards under the Hong Kong Convention.

The Convention states that ship recycling facilities need to provide for worker safety by “Ensuring the availability, maintenance and use of personal protective equipment and clothing needed for all ship recycling operations.”3 It details that PPE needs to comprise of head, face, eye, hand and foot protection, respiratory protective equipment, hearing protection, protectors against radioactive contamination, protection from falls, and appropriate clothing.

The national laws in shipbreaking countries should detail the obligatory measures for occupational health and safety, as international regulations are either not legally binding or lack sufficient detail. Domestic legislation such as for head and eye protection, including detailed guidelines, facilitates monitoring by the responsible authorities. Irresponsible behaviour by yard owners should be prosecuted and penalised by the respective legal system based on detailed labour laws.The obligatory use of adequate protection for the eyes, face and head should be prescribed by law.

Yard owner responsibilities

According to existing international regulations, the responsibility to enforce proper health and safety measures in shipbreaking yards lies with the competent authorities, labour inspectorates, employers, and – to a lesser extent – the workers, including their foremen.

The responsibility of the employer, according to the ILO guidelines, includes the identification of hazards to be made during a risk assessment for every yard in order to set up preventative and protective measures, to plan and implement these, and to ensure emergency preparedness. It is the responsibility of the yard owner to ensure that workers wear full protective gear.The managers of the yard need to purchase PPE and provide the workers with it. Moreover, they need to ensure PPE is used at all times during the work. Finally, the yard owners are responsible for providing adequate training to workers and foremen on the correct use of PPE.

Lacking data

In shipbreaking yards, protection of the eyes, face and head is extremely important as injuries are frequent. Unfortunately, there are no precise figures about accidents and injuries. The trade unions and local non-governmental organisations document casualties, but not injuries. As most of the workers are unregistered day labourers without contracts, it is nearly impossible to receive comprehensive data on injuries. The yard owners are responsible for documenting accidents and injuries in order to better assess risks and hazards and to react adequately.

Helmet use

Head protection by a helmet is essential, as a large number of accidents are caused by falling or flying objects, or from striking the head against structures. These accidents can happen anywhere on the yards, especially on board or around the wrecks of ships, when cutting down larger steel structures or when loading steel plates on trucks. ILO guidelines, however, emphasise that “Safety helmets or hard hats... should be worn by all persons at all times while in the shipbreaking facility, (and that) it may be necessary to provide for different types of helmets according to particular activities.”

In general, the ILO guidelines prescribe that “The shell of a helmet should be a onepiece construction, with an adjustable cradle inside to support the helmet on the wearer’s head and, where appropriate, a chinstrap to prevent the helmet from falling off.The cradle and chinstrap should be properly adjusted as soon as the helmet is put on to ensure a snug fit.”

Until a few years ago, most of the workers on shipbreaking yards did not wear helmets at all. Fortunately, yard owners have realised the importance of head protection and have started to distribute helmets; however, shipbreakers need to ensure that every worker present on the yard wears a helmet at all times. It is the yard manager’s responsibility to enforce the obligatory wearing of helmets, even when workers are reluctant, e.g. due to hot weather or when working off a ship.

Eye protection needs to prevent different risks

Due to the above mentioned reasons, there are no comprehensive figures on eye injuries, permanent after effects or blindness; however, it is obvious that activities in shipbreaking yards present several dangers for the eyes. The ILO in its guidelines explained that eye and face protection “Should be worn when there is likely exposure to eye or face injury from airborne dust or flying particles, dangerous substances, harmful heat, light or other radiation, and in particular during welding, flame cutting, rock drilling, concrete mixing or other hazardous work.”

First and foremost, the workers using flame cutters and welding equipment are exposed to sparks, fumes, debris and splinters, and it is of paramount importance that the eyes are shielded from this glare. Welders and torch cutters are exposed to optical radiation, ultraviolet (UV), and visible light including sunlight and infrared, and therefore need to be provided with adequate face and eye protection.

Insufficient shading leads to eye damage and flying sparks can cause serious eye injuries. Proper protection – such as a safety helmet and welding goggles – must be worn at all stages of torch cutting and welding. The goggles must cover the eye sockets completely. According to the cutting technology used, the adequate models of goggles need to be provided. Special eye protection must be used when workers cut metal coated with toxic paints that cannot be removed prior to cutting.

Apart from cutting and welding activities, adequate protection for the head, face and eyes must also be provided with regards to sunlight. Workers are exposed to strong sunlight – especially in the yards in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. At the same time, workers need to be provided with waterproof clothing and head coverings according to the ILO guidelines when exposed to adverse weather conditions.

The hazards of welding should be minimised by regular medical screening of the eyes. Torch cutters and welders who are exposed to optical radiation and the sun should therefore be under medical surveillance, in order to detect precancerous lesions of the skin and other possible adverse effects.

Unfortunately, in some yards in South Asia, cutters and welders are not provided with adequate welding goggles and safety helmets. Even today, there are still workers who do not protect their eyes when torch cutting or use inadequate eye wear such as sunglasses. Yard owners and foremen need to provided goggles and enforce their use at all times.

The ILO argues that protection for the face and eyes is available in a wide variety of designs and that the gear has to be selected according to the specific characteristics of the respective hazard. The ILO stresses that corrective goggles – unless manufactured specifically to protect against a safety standard – cannot be considered to provide adequate protection.

Eye protection and emergency response

The available medical support in the shipbreaking yards in South Asia is not sufficient. Generally speaking, the yards lack emergency response equipment, ambulances and facilities for primary care.

To our knowledge, shipbreaking yards in South Asia do not have eye wash stations, despite workers dealing with different hazardous substances and fumes. According to the ILO, ship breaking yards should be equipped with “eye washes, showers or suitable equipment for quick drenching or flushing in the area for immediate use.”

So far, there are no hospitals in the vicinity of the yards in all three countries and injured workers need to be taken to hospitals in the nearest towns. In the Gadani yards in Pakistan, for example, the next hospital in Karachi is more than one hour away by road, which is too far in cases of severe injuries.

Asbestos removal

A major challenge in shipbreaking operations is the removal of asbestos from end of life vessels. Asbestos was used widely in shipbuilding and can be found anywhere onboard a ship. Of course, workers need to be fully protected with coveralls, a mask and respiratory protective equipment.

According to the ILO guidelines, “Respiratory protective equipment should be provided for work in conditions where there is a risk of oxygen deficiency or exposure to poisonous, dangerous or irritating fumes, dust or gases.” In many shipbreaking yards in South Asia, however, workers remove asbestos with their hands, which are only protected with gloves. As a consequence, they breathe in asbestos fibres, carry them away on their clothes and even unknowingly take them into their homes. Studies in shipbreaking yards in South Asia have shown that high numbers of workers suffer from asbestos related diseases and respiratory problems due the lack of adequate safety measures.

Lack of compensation

In the South Asian yards workers do usually not receive compensation after accidents and injuries. Families are paid compensation in cases of death; however, workers suffering from severe injury often fail to claim reparation. Especially in cases where accidents result in an inability to work, such as blindness, workers need to have access to the legal system in order to demand redress. Next to the provision of adequate PPE, more awareness is therefore particularly needed to address workers’ rights and access to justice.


1. ILO, 2003. Safety and health in shipbreaking: Guidelines for Asian countries and Turkey.
2. IMO, 2012. Guidelines for Safe and Environmentally Sound Ship Recycling.
3. See regulation 22 of the Hong Kong Convention.
4. See paragraph 15.2. of the ILO Guidelines, 2003.
5. See paragraph 15.3.1. of the ILO Guidelines, 2003.
6. See paragraph 16.1.7. b of the ILO Guidelines, 2003.
7. See paragraph 15.5 of the ILO Guidelines, 2003.

Published: 04th Jul 2013 in OSA Magazine


Patrizia Heidegger

Patrizia Heidegger is the Executive Director of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a global coalition of 18 environmental, human and labour rights non-governmental organisations based in Brussels.The Platform promotes clean and safe ship recycling and seeks to prevent shipbreaking on tidal beaches, which is the root cause of dangerous working conditions and environmental pollution in the sector.

The Platform works at UN and EU level as well as in shipbreaking countries in order to develop better legislation. It strives to cooperate with the shipping sector, from progressive shipowners with clear corporate social responsibility objectives to clean and safe ship recyclers, in order to establish new industry standards.The Platform is 100 percent nonprofit.

In South Asia, the Platform’s member organisations are committed to improving working conditions and environmental protection in shipbreaking yards.They use legal action to enforce existing labour and environmental laws and demand more stringent rules and regulations for shipbreaking.

Every year, the Platform counts all end of life vessels that were scrapped in substandard facilities in South Asia, and publishes a list naming all ships, their beneficial owners and final destinations in order to raise awareness of the global shipbreaking crisis.The Platform also encourages journalists to investigate the issue.

Currently, activities of the Platform are focused on the ongoing legislative process in the European Union. In March 2012, the EU commission published a proposal for a new regulation on ship recycling.The regulation seeks to implement the Hong Kong Convention and to add several higher standards for EU flagged vessels.The Platform has sharply criticised the regulation, as it does not introduce any economic incentive to encourage shipowners to choose responsible ship recycling.

The proposal would facilitate the export of hazardous waste on board EU owned end of life vessels to Asia, although according to international environmental law, such export to developing countries should be minimised and eventually banned.

The Platform has therefore welcomed that the European Parliament is discussing a financial mechanism to promote clean and safe ship recycling; however, the Platform is still concerned by the willingness of both the Commission and the Parliament to allow huge amounts of hazardous waste to go to Asia.

Please find the list of end of life vessels sent to substandard facilities in 2012 here, in PDF and Excel format http://bit.ly/VPPrwW


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