Asbestos in the Ship-breaking industry of Bangladesh: Action for Ban

Bangladesh is one of the countries in Asia which has been actively involved in commercial ship-breaking for more than two decades. The ship graveyard at Shitakundha, Chittagong is the only ‘iron mine’ of the land. Bangladesh purchases on average 180-250 old ships a year for scrapping. At present, the number of active ship-breaking yards is 30 and around 30,000 workers are directly and around 50,000 indirectly employed in those yards.


Key reasons for establishment of the ship-breaking industry at Shitakunda area are: the natural grounding facility, low financial investment required for human resources and for machinery to operate the business, high demand for low-cost raw materials for re-rolling mills (mills that produce iron bars), cheap labour, low enforcement of legislation related to the business, isolation from the conscious public eye and weak monitoring infrastructure of government agencies. In reality, the ship-scrapping yards at Shitakunda operate by self-made rules of the yard and company owners.



Workers among ship parts at Shitakunda, Chittagong
Photo: Sanjiv Pandita



The work in the ship-breaking yards is mostly labour-intensive and 100% contract-based. There is no formal worker-management relationship, job security or social safety-net schemes for them. 98% of the labour in scrapping yards are illiterate and lack formal training; and 100% of them are unorganised. Occupational accidents, injury and deaths are very frequent and normal events there.

No available data or reports exist on workers health in ship-breaking industries in the region, more specifically in Bangladesh. This indicate that there is no, and there never has been any, systematic monitoring structure of health among workers in ship-scrapping yards in our region.

Workers receive potential negative health impacts from traditional working procedures adopted in the scrapping yards such as:
• torch cutting without protection (eye and skin injuries)
• heavy lifting (wear and tear, back injuries)
• noise (hearing defects)
and from the exposure to hazardous substances such as:
• asbestos
• chemicals (PCS, PCV, PAH, Tin-organic compounds oils)
• heavy metals
• fumes (dust, fume/gas components; dioxines, isocyanates, sulphur, etc.)

Asbestos-containing materials (ACM) are found in the thermal system insulation and on surfacing materials. When ACM deteriorates or is disturbed, asbestos breaks up into very fine fibers that can be suspended in the air for long periods and possibly inhaled by workers and operators at the facility or by people living near by the scrapping yards. The most dangerous asbestos fibers are too small to be visible. Once they are inhaled, the fibers can remain and accumulate in the lung. Breathing high levels of asbestos fibers can lead to an increased risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma (a cancer of the chest and abdominal linings), and asbestosis (irreversible lung scarring that can be fatal). The risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma increases with the level of exposure. Symptoms of these diseases do not show up until many years after exposure. Most people with asbestos-related diseases have been exposed to elevated concentrations in connection with their work.

Asbestos removed from a ship is still not necessarily regulated as hazardous waste in Bangladesh and elsewhere. In fact, in Bangladesh and some other countries asbestos is recovered by manual crushing and then re-custed, or-re-formed, for re-use.

The potential health impacts associated with the use of asbestos are of such a severe nature that compulsory minimum precautions are necessary. This includes worker education/capacity-building training and awareness in the ship-breaking yards on the negative effects of asbestos, protection of workers when extracting asbestos from vessels, a ban on the re-use of asbestos, the securing of the disposal of asbestos and measures preventing asbestos from re-entering the market from scrapyards.

Most of the ordinary workers in the ship-breaking industry in the Shitakunda area of Chittagong do not have any minimum knowledge about asbestos exposure and its consequence. Rather, the employer of the ship-breaking yard strongly insists that asbestos is not dangerous to the health. Even the labour inspectors of the government have very little knowledge of the asbestos issue.

There is no data about the number of victimized workers in ship-breaking industry exposed to asbestos while at work in last 35 years. The Labour Law 2006 of Bangladesh has declared ‘Asbestosis’ as a listed occupational disease. But due to the absence of trade union organization for workers and invisible labour inspection at the yard level, a decent work scenario is completely absent and it is very essential to develop a social dialogue mechanism in the ship-breaking industry to change this long-existing negative situation.

Workers cutting metal sheets taken from ships
Photo: Sanjiv Pandita


Growing Ban Asbestos Movement in Bangladesh:

Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE) is currently implementing an action project titled as Awareness Raising Project on Asbestos in Ship-breaking Industry of Bangladesh since July 2006 with the support of Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging (FNV) in Chittagong district of Bangladesh as part of its mission to achieve a ban on asbestos in Bangladesh through a collective stakeholders initiative.

The objectives of the project are to create asbestos awareness among workers in the ship-breaking industry; to strengthen the local voice of the asbestos victim; to develop trade union organization by workers’ initiative; to improve the health and safety situation, and the status of workers rights in this sector for the benefit of the workers, local community and the labour movement. Eight major national trade union centres of Bangladesh are the key beneficiaries of this particular project. In the meantime the project has been able to train up 40 workplace trainers and organizers to carry out the grass-root workers education and asbestos sensitization programme. Furthermore a local union network for the ship-breaking industry has been established to strengthen organizing and asbestos awareness actions at the yard level.

The implementing project will ultimately contribute towards strengthening the growing ‘ban asbestos’ movement in Bangladesh and honing international voices and actions for a Global Ban on Asbestos.