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Sunday, September 6, 2009
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Safety still missing

5 burnt at ship-breaking yard; HC order stuck in legal tangle

Five workers sustained severe burns at a ship-breaking yard in Sitakunda upazila yesterday.

The victims--Hossain, 35, Ashek, 20, Md Kuddus, 32, Jahangir, 28 and Khokon, 22-- were rushed to the burn unit of Chittagong Medical College Hospital.

Fire broke out at Kabir Steel Yard in Baro Aulia while the workers were cutting a Korean ship with gas cutters around 9:00am, police said.

Assistant Registrar of the burn unit Dr Khalid said the condition of Hossain and Ashek were critical.

The workers very often become victims of such incidents due to lack of safety measures in cutting ship, he added.

Around six months ago, the High Court ordered the government to close the operations of all ship-breaking yards running without environmental clearances within two weeks. The court also directed the shipyard authorities to ensure safe working conditions for the workers.

None of the 36 ship-breaking yards, which were identified as category Red [extremely dangerous], had taken or applied for environmental clearance from the government, revealed a report submitted to the court by the Department of Environment.

The HC considering the country's environmental degradation had also ordered that no ship would enter Bangladesh territory for breaking without cleaning its hazardous materials at source or outside the territory.

Later the shipyard owners appealed to the court to have time to take necessary measures and be in compliance with the law.

The yards keep on breaking ships without environment department clearances as the issue has been stuck in a legal tangle.

Some 30,000 workers are engaged in ship scrapping in Chittagong's Sitakunda, which houses the world's second largest ship-breaking industry after China. At least 250,000 people in the country live off the industry directly and indirectly, according to experts.

A report of a survey conducted by two internationally reputed organisations, Greenpeace and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), says on average at least one worker is injured a day and one dies a week.

The report styled "The Human Cost of Breaking Ships" published last December simultaneously from Bangladesh, India and Switzerland says at least 1,000 workers died in the last 20 years in Bangladesh's ship-breaking yards. The figures do not include the deaths from diseases caused by toxic fumes and materials workers are exposed to all the time.

Globally some 700 ships are scrapped a year, mainly in five countries --China, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Vietnam -- and some in Turkey too, says a Greenpeace source.

With the global fleet growing fast, from 15,000 ships in the 1960s to 62,000 in 2000, and with the ships built before 1970 being sorted out for decommissioning, the number of ships to be condemned for scrapping will also rise in future.

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Shipbreaking is not included in Category red in Environmental Conservation Rules 1997. It is Orange B category, which is just below the Red. Yes, shipbreaking activities should be categorized as RED due to extent of pollution caused by the industry.

In fact, as per ECR 1997, all the factories irrespective of categories (Green, Orange A & B or Red) should obtain environment clearance certificate and renew periodically from DOE for establishment and continuous operation. Unfortunately many shipbreaking yards are not yet registered as factory with Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, which is responsible to look after the Occupational Health and Safety requirements of the factories. Most of the yards run with trade licenses issued by local authorities.

DOE is preparing a set of specific rules for shipbreaking industry as directed by HC. DOE has applied for extension of time required to prepare rules twice, 3 months each time. As per the responsible Director of DOE, a draft is already prepared and at the moment that is with an independent consultant for review and translation. DOE hope to submit the draft rules to HC sometime in October or November 2009.

Department of explosives should investigate this tragic incident with immediate effect and identify the root cause of the accident. It is mandatory for the shipbreakers to invite Department of explosives twice to inspect the vessel before cutting, once at the outer anchorage before beaching the ship and next at the beach before starting the dismantling operation. No cutting operation should be initiated without obtaining Gas Free certificates from the Department of explosives. The department needs to take legal action against the shipbreaking yard in question if the requirements were not duly fulfilled.

This is also an opportunity for Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments to conduct a full official investigation of the incident and to find out if the requirements of the Labour Laws 2006 were not fulfilled by the yard. The department should also make sure that all the shipbreaking yards get registered as factory and comply with the requirements set by the law.

These kinds of investigations and actions will make the shipbreakers more accountable and aware about the legal requirements of the land. Once the rules drafted for shipbreaking are passed DOE must ensure that the rules are properly enforced. We should start trying to change the country's image of 'strong rules but weak enforcement'.

: Dr. Tridib Ghose, Occupational Health, Safety and Environment expert





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