Workers in the country’s shipbreaking industry remain largely unsafe because of poor workplace safety in many yards.
On average more than 26 workers die every year in the life-threatening job of dismantling ships for scrap.
11 workers died in different shipbreaking yards at Sitakunda in Chattogram in the first seven months of this year alone. Among them, three died last Wednesday after inhaling toxic gas that was trapped in the engine room of a vessel.
With these three latest deaths, the number of casualties in shipyards over the past eight years has reached 210, according to reports of the Department of the Environment (DoE), and different NGOs.
Experts say that the absence of sufficient safety equipment as per international standards, emission of toxic gas, fall of iron sheets and explosions are the main reasons for worker deaths in the industry.
They also say that the rising number of deaths is earning a bad name for the country.
“The reluctance of shipyards to implement the safety measures proposed by the International Labour Organization and other international conventions is the main reason for the rise in worker deaths,” said Dr Maruf Hossain, a professor of fisheries at Chattogram University.
This professor added that the death risks would have been decreased had proper measures been taken as per international rules.
Echoing Dr Maruf, Mohammad Ali Shaheen, country co-ordinator of the AGO Platform of Bangladesh, also held the shipyard owners responsible for worker deaths.
He said the shipbreaking industry has been facing an image crisis as a result of a series of worker deaths in the yards.
A large number of shipbreaking yards in Chattogram do not have a safe work environment for their workers.
There are 81 ship-breaking yards listed with the Chattogram DoE, but at present there are actually 150 operational yards in the area. Many of them have no DoE environment clearance certificate.
Many also have not renewed their licences after they expired.
Moreover, a number of shipyards allegedly do not use their waste disposal machines despite having them. They release untreated chemicals, waste and burnt oil from scrap ships into nearby waterbodies.
Muktadir Hasan, assistant director of the Chattogram DoE, also acknowledged that most of the shipyards do not have a waste management plant.
He said that for this reason the DoE has issued show-cause notices to the owners of these yards a number of times, and has also fined them on many occasions, but to no avail.
However, yard-owners say that the increasing number of accidents and deaths in the industry are a result of negligence by workers.
“We would supply safety tools if workers wanted to use them. But they work without using these tools. Accidents happen as a result of this” said Nazmul Islam, the assistant secretary of the Bangladesh Ship Breakers and Recyclers’ Association.
He said shipyard owners have been training workers to avoid accidents in this growing industry of the country.
In 2017, 198 ships weighing over 21.34 lakh tonnes, were brought in to Bangladesh for dismantling. The market value of these discarded vessels was more than Tk 6,332 crore.
204 ships were brought in for dismantling in 2018. Up to May this year, 146 ships have been imported for dismantling.