Right now, the two nearly 300-metre long container ships Maersk Georgia and Maersk Wyoming are lying on a beach in India and being cut into pieces by Indian shipyard workers. The 20,000-ton steel ships have sunk into the sand off Alang beach on India’s west coast, where the Shree Ram shipbreaking yard has been hired to scrap the ships for Maersk.
This must be done responsibly and in accordance with Maersk’s own standards, according to the company’s stated policy. Maersk also requires that the shipyard uphold the so-called Hong Kong Convention, which was created in part to ensure that scrapyards meet the necessary safety measures for their workers. Safety measures, that are supposed to put an end to gruesome statistics like the 69 who died at the shipyards in Alang between 2009 and 2013, according to the findings of Geetanjoy Sahu, assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who has studied conditions there.
Danwatch chose to travel to India to investigate how Maersk’s ships are recycled. We have documented the shipbreaking process at the specific yard, and have interviewed ten shipyard workers who report that neither they nor their colleagues have employment contracts – in direct violation of Maersk’s internal standards and of international conventions.
In addition, the shipyard workers report that they work without necessary personal protective equipment in an industry that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has called the most dangerous in the world.
Expert: “The shipyard should be shut down”
We showed photo documentation from the shipyard in India to a series of experts in occupational safety and health, including Hasse Mortensen, the former lead inspector consultant at the Danish Working Environment Authority, who has a thorough knowledge of occupational environment at shipyards. He was shocked by the conditions at the shipbreaking yard handling Maersk’s ships.
Hong Kong Convention
The Hong Kong convention is a global agreement adopted by the International Maritime Organisation. It’s purpose is to ensure that ship dismantling does not pose unnecessary risks to humans and the environment. The convention has not yet entered into force as this would, among other things, require a minimum of 15 countries ratifying the convention.
So far only five countries (Norway, France, Belguim, Panama and the Republic of Congo) have done so. According to the Danish Minister for Environment and Food Esben Lunde Larsen a Danish ratification of the convention is underway, which Maersk is an advocate for.
“There can be a sudden, imminent danger of explosion in the circumstances you’re showing me. I have almost no words to describe how wrong things could go for those workers if these gas lines get damaged and the gas ignites,” says Mortensen, looking at a picture from Shree Ram that shows unprotected gas cables near an open flame.
“In a Danish setting, this would be grounds to close the work site until the lines were hung properly and secured. You have to remember, these are extremely flammable gasses they are working with,” emphasises Mortensen.
Jane Frølund Thomsen, a senior consultant with the Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Bispebjerg University Hospital, agrees. She evaluates work-related illnesses among labourers, including shipyard workers, in Denmark.
“Torch cutting involves safety risk. It uses pure oxygen, which is liable to explode if there are sparks around, especially if the sparks get near the gas lines. If the insulation is burned off the lines, and oxygen leaks out, there is a serious danger of explosion and fire,” declares Thomsen.
Maersk admits error
Many of the employees at Shree Ram work without necessary personal protective equipment like respirators, safety glasses, work clothes and hearing protectors. This, too, shocked Hasse Mortensen, who has seen many accidents caused by a lack of protective equipment in his 20 years at the Working Environment Authority.
“That is really poisonous smoke they’re breathing. Meanwhile, some are not even wearing flame-retardant clothing. This could be a life-threatening situation if the sparks hit their shirt,” insists Mortensen.
Maersk concedes in an interview with Danwatch that there are areas in need of improvement in order to ensure worker safety.
“We have found few examples where dismantling is being undertaken without the necessary safety equipment. The situation is being addressed by the shipyard. It is of course unsatisfactory if the equipment is not being worn, even in isolated cases. This is one of the issues regarding safety equipment that the shipyard is addressing,” said Annette Stube.
The shipyard workers at Shree Ram earn their pay by cutting the ship into small pieces that can be recycled in the steel industry. They do this by mixing oxygen and gas in a device that can cut through steel and paint with a flame that can reach up to 1500 degrees Celsius. The process is called torch cutting, and it gives off a number of harmful substances, according to Mortensen.
“When you are torch cutting with black steel, microscopic particles and gasses are given off that are extremely dangerous to inhale. It can therefore have disastrous, damaging health effects on the body if you are not properly protected,” says the former lead inspector of the Working Environment Authority.
Poisonous smoke can cause cancer
Over the years, Danish metal workers have contracted serious illnesses and even died as a consequence of not wearing the necessary safety equipment. Jane Frølund Thomsen of Bispebjerg University Hospital knows exactly how this kind of smoke affects the body, since she sees Danish metal workers in her practice who are suffering from lung disease and cancer.
“The rules here in Denmark require an exhaust system when doing that kind of work. It’s hard to say whether there is an acute danger, but if they perform torch cutting in a confined space for long enough, there is a real risk of suffocation,” says Thomsen.
Protection from welding and cutting smoke is not only a central element in Danish workplace law, it is required by both Maersk’s own standards and the Hong Kong Convention, which both Maersk and Shree Ram claim to uphold.
Some of the workers who spoke to Danwatch reported that they use a white mask when they are welding in the ships at Shree Ram. But an ordinary mask is far from enough to keep dangerous gasses out, says Thomsen.
“A mask offers hardly any protection. It doesn’t filter out toxic gasses at all, and not much of the smoke, either. The smoke can contain formalin when you’re dealing with painted surfaces, and we know that formalin causes lung cancer, because it’s carcinogenic. But it would have to be present in a certain concentration,” says Thomsen.
Thomsen could not comment on the particular mask used by the workers, but Hasse Mortensen could. He has a thorough expertise in protective equipment, and knows the 3M model N95 8210 mask used by the workers well.
“This mask is not sufficient to protect against particles and smoke from torch cutting. It is specifically designed to protect against dust. Smoke from torch cutting can contain particles that 1000 times smaller than dust. So if the mask cannot filter out particles this size, they pass through, straight into the lungs of the affected worker,” says Mortensen.
Clear breach of the Hong Kong Convention
Kanu Jain is a researcher at the Delft University of Technology in Holland, where he studies shipbreaking. He is about to complete his PhD on the subject, for which a large part of his research has been focused on shipbreaking methods. He agrees with the experts’ assessments of the dangerous working conditions at Shree Ram, and emphasises that it is not only a case of noncompliance with Maersk’s internal standards, but also of clear breaches of the Hong Kong Convention.
“Workers seem to be missing breathing and eye protection during cutting operations, which violates Regulation 22 – ‘Worker safety and training’ – of the Hong Kong Convention,” says Jain, who has authored with Professor J.J. Hopmann from the same university and others a scholarly article on the Hong Kong Convention itself.
The Convention is also the focal point of Maersk’s own standards for responsible shipbreaking. The standards are based on the Convention, but go a step further and are more specific in their requirements of shipyards.
The more specific requirements please Peter Hasle, professor of occupational environment at the Centre for Industrial Production at Aalborg University. He has for many years carried out research in the field of occupational environment management, and has also been a professor at the National Research Centre for the Working Environment.
In his opinion, Maersk’s requirements with respect to safety at the shipyards are an appropriate reflection of the firm’s size and responsibility. But after a careful review of the documentation from the shipyard, he reaches a different conclusion.
“It makes you wonder why Maersk chose this shipyard, because it is obvious that it does not fulfil the company’s requirements. My assessment is that the shipyard was not able to show that they meet Maersk’s standards, and so maybe they prepared some nice paperwork to explain how they plan to make improvements along the way. But the problems I see here are so significant that it seems completely meaningless. They are not even close to meeting the requirements. It’s the absolutely baseline conditions that are the problem,” underscores the professor.
Annette Stube reports that Maersk has invested a great deal in hiring competent people to represent the company at the shipyard.
“We have several people at the shipyard who have the power to stop the work if it does not comply with the standards. They are specialists, employed by us, with their own office at the shipyard so they can be on site.”
Peter Hasle believes that this is a healthy approach, but has a hard time understanding what those specialists are doing at the shipyard if such dangerous conditions are to be found.
“Maersk has a tremendous responsibility here. If they are present and observe these things without taking action, then they are communicating to the local management and employees that these dangerous situations are acceptable. If Maersk is present, but does nothing, then Maersk employees learn that it’s acceptable to conduct business that way – and that Maersk’s requirements do not matter,” says Hasle.
Expert: The standards are not being met at all
Danwatch has interviewed more than ten workers from Shree Ram who were able to document that they are employed at the shipyard. They report that they have no contract and that they do not know what their rights are as employees. This is one more issue that surprises the professor about Maersk’s actions, especially since the company’s standards explicitly emphasise how important it is that all workers have a contract and know their rights.
“When employees don’t have a contract, then they are not in a position to object if they feel that conditions are unsafe. Likewise, they won’t stop working even if they become seriously ill from torch cutting without a respirator, for example, as they apparently do.”
Hasle continues, “It seems that Maersk is using its standards as an image of how nice and tidy their shipbreaking operations are. But in reality, the standards are not being met at all.”
Again Maersk recognizes, that there are conditions that have not been in order, but that they have taken actions on this since Danwatch’s visit to the yard.
“The contractual situation is one of the factors that were not completely in order when we started our cooperation with Shree Ram, and which has recently been brought to order,” said Stube.
The Shree Ram shipyard declined to comment on the documentation collected by Danwatch. Maersk would not say when the company expects the shipyard to be in compliance with their standards.