Asbestos Exposure Timebomb for Ship Recycling Workers

Asbestos Exposure Timebomb for Ship Recycling Workers

Asbestos is globally recognised as having the potential to cause detrimental effects to health with indisputable scientific evidence showing that inhalation of asbestos causes lung cancer and mesothelioma: A rare form of cancer that develops in the linings of the lungs and stomach. However, the impact of the consequences of asbestos inhalation and subsequent asbestos-related disease among ship recycling workers is currently being overlooked to the point of being ignored.

Asbestos was very widely used in the ship building industry from 1872 onwards, with many thousands of ships containing quite large amounts. Over time, asbestos use within the industry has reduced as the hazardous consequences of the material where realised. However, surveys have shown that asbestos is frequently found in marine assets built after the 2002 and 2001 SOLAS prohibitions. This has occurred in new builds where components have contained asbestos – a result of non-compliant supply chains generally originating in countries where the use of asbestos is not banned. Ultimately, asbestos containing ships and offshore oil and gas assets have been, and will continue to be, sent to be recycled in a work environment where potential exposure to asbestos is almost inevitable.

While the tragic story of asbestos related death and illness is relatively well documented in other industries, there is an alarming lack of knowledge of the rates of asbestos-related disease in ship recycling for those with historical exposure. In the only study available (Wu, W., Lin, Y., Li, C., Tsai, P., Yang, C., Liou, S. & Wu, T. (2015). Cancer Attributable to Asbestos Exposure in Shipbreaking Workers: A Matched Cohort Study), a positive link between cancer incidence as a result of asbestos exposure was confirmed from a study of over 4000 Taiwanese ship recycling workers active in the 1980s-1990s. The study showed that ship recycling workers had a significantly higher risk of developing cancer compared to the general population and had an increased hazard ratio for overall cancer, oral cancer and lung cancer. With increasing levels of ship recycling worldwide, and many tens of thousands of people involved, this study shows the potential for an impending worldwide health crisis.

For current ship recycling workers, their fate seems destined to be similar to that of their unfortunate Taiwanese colleagues. From ongoing observations of current ship recycling practices, it does not seem that the appropriate practices and policies are in place to ensure this dreadful trend is reversed. Issues such as a lack of an adequate understanding of asbestos hazards from the government levels down is prevalent in addition to inferior and inadequate PPE and asbestos removal practices.

While the challenges mentioned above will require a multifaceted and multi-stakeholder approach to truly solve the various problems, there are existing frameworks coming into force which can potentially contribute to improving the situation for those currently working in the ship recycling industry. The IMO’s Hong Kong Convention and EU’s Ship Recycling Convention have legislated a requirement for all ships over 500GT to have an Inventory of Hazardous of Materials (IHM). An IHM is essentially a document which outlines the locations and estimated qualities of a list of defined hazardous materials present on board marine assets, including asbestos, which have the potential to cause harm to human health or the environment: The rational being that the IHM will help the ship recyclers identify where the hazardous materials are, and assist in formulating a Ship Recycling Plan for safe and responsible removal.

Though the IHM by itself will not be enough to solve all the issues currently experienced, it has the potential to play an important role in reducing asbestos exposure. However, for the IHM to have the desired impact, an accurate and reliable hazardous material survey must be conducted. If ship owners do not take the IHM process seriously and simply treat the IHM as a paperwork exercise, or enlist a substandard IHM service provider, the desired benefits will not be achieved. Instead, the health of those tasked with breaking up their marine assets will be at risk, potentially along with the ship’s crew.

For a relatively low cost, professional organisations are available to conduct reliable and accurate Inventory of Hazardous Material surveys which offer a wide range of benefits and assurances for marine asset owners. In addition to contributing to making ship recycling a safer industry, owners can protect themselves against costly hazardous material related lawsuits, detentions and delays (SOLAS violations). Through an accurate identification of the locations of hazardous materials onboard, the IHM is the first line of defence in protecting and reducing asbestos exposure among ship recycling workers. It is hoped that by the shipping industry taking their legal responsibilities seriously, the first steps of mitigating what will already be a tragic set of circumstances and will lead the way in the journey to safe and responsible ship recycling.

Stuart A. McKenna is Technical Manager at ACS Marine, a consultancy specialising in preparing Inventories of Hazardous Material (IHM) and offering solutions to Ship Recycling and Decommissioning projects. To keep up to date please follow us on Twitter