A tree fort built out of scrap lumber can be knocked down in a fraction of the time it took to build it, but the same can’t be said of complex structures, including ships.
“When a ship is operating, it’s fairly safe, but when it’s sent to recycling it becomes a small hazardous waste site,” says Paul Manzi, who operates PSM Safety and Environmental Services out of Portland, OR.
“Basically, in the past, minimal consideration was given as to how ships were going to be taken apart decades later,” explains Manzi. Today modern shipbuilders generally include eventual disposal logistics in the design equation.
Workers taking apart older ships may face potential exposure to everything from highly flammable polystyrene insulation to fuel, solvents, battery acid, asbestos, lead and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls used as coolants and lubricants in transformers and capacitors until 1977 in the United States).
Asked for an example of a potentially fatal incident involving shipbreaking, Manzi, who has been involved with maritime safety operations for a decade, said a fishing trawler was being dismantled in Portland last year, when a fire broke out. A cable raceway had become ignited during a cutting operation. Fortunately, no injuries were reported.
“The process of dismantling requires continuous planning to address the changing hazards which will range from fire potential to fall hazards. There’s a potential for every hazard OSHA can envision,” says Manzi.
“OSHA’s involvement in ship dismantling is appropriate in such a high-hazard industry. OSHA’s willingness to work with the industry and understand the process and their involvement in helping operators mitigate hazards will go a long way toward reducing injuries and accidents.”
Ship materials are reprocessed into steel plate and re-bar, among other products, but Manzi notes, “At this time the business is not profitable, so less responsible operators push the envelope by taking shortcuts (such as not providing adequate training or adequate PPE).”
OSHA has announced a national emphasis program to safeguard workers involved in shipbreaking operations. This is in response to the industry’s injury rate of more than twice that of construction and general industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 25 per cent of shipyard fatalities result from fires and explosions related to hot work, such as welding, cutting and brazing.
The administration predicts that within five years, the US Navy will dispose of more than 60 warships, the Maritime Administration more than 50 large vessels, and the US Coast Guard more than 200 vessels of less than 200 feet in length.