Four workers were killed and three others injured when a gas cylinder exploded at a ship-breaking yard in Sitakunda of Chittagong on 3 April 2014.
The incident happened when the victims were dismantling a scrap ship around 3:30pm. The four shipbreaking workers were Jasim, Faruk, Arif and Gias Uddin, and they died after inhaling carbon dioxide. The three injured workers were rushed to a hospital; one of them is in a critical state. This fatal accident could have been prevented. Instead it brings the death toll to at least five workers so far this year in Chittagong. The NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a coalition of environmental, human rights and labour rights organisations working for safe and clean ship recycling worldwide, has recorded that at least 23 workers were killed in the Bangladesh shipbreaking yards last year
Import and dismantling of ships with highly toxic elements continue, even after the High Court directed the government to ensure workers’ safety and shut down all the unauthorised ship-breaking yards four years ago.
But officials of the relevant government agencies ignored the order. In yesterday’s incident, a cylinder full of carbon dioxide suddenly went off at the shipyard of Arafin Enterprise at Kadam Rasul, the four died instantly. The injured were sent to Al-Amin Private Clinic for treatment.
Later, one worker was shifted to Chittagong Medical College Hospital as his condition worsened.
Interestingly, Arafin Enterprise officials claim to have all the safety gear, and a signboard on its entrance says: “Safety First”.
Its manager, Hasan Uddin, claimed the victims — Jasim, Faruk, Arif and Gias Uddin — were not their employees. According to him, they were hired by an electric cable trader who bought the cables of the ship beached a month ago for scrapping. Hasan also claimed that the workers were provided with safety gears but they did not use it.
“Marks of splinter injuries were found on the chests of the workers. But they died from inhaling toxic gases,” said Dr Rezaul Karim of Al-Amin clinic.
According to the website of Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association (BSBA), the owner of Arafin Enterprise is Giasuddin Chowdhury.
The Daily Star, the leading English News Daily of Bangladesh, tried to contact him over the phone, but he did not pick up the calls.
“One of the survivors told me that he could have saved at least two of the workers if the yard had provided them with oxygen. Instead, the yard management wanted to hide the bodies,” says Muhammad Ali Shahin, Bangladesh coordinator of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform. “The families, who had been alerted of the accident, finally managed to break the gates of the yard. But it was unfortunately too late to save the workers”.
Nazim Uddin, vice president of BSBA, said the accident happened as the workers did not know how to handle a scrap ship with toxic elements.
Asked if anyone from the shipyard was accompanying them, he said it was not possible to keep an eye on every outside worker.
But he added the association would take an initiative to train those who come to work at shipyards from outside.
Phul Mia, father of Jasim, one of the dead, said the employer never provided his son with any safety gear.
Jasim, the lone breadwinner of the family, used to get Tk 15,000 a month for working as a foreman.
Zakir Hossain, deputy inspector general of the Department of Inspection for Safeties of Shops and Establishments, said, “Our inspector visited the factory and found the accident had occurred due to negligence. We will serve a notice on the owner.”
The ship-breaking industry that started operations in Sitakunda in 1984 provides direct and indirect employment for about 2,00,000 people.
Around one million tonnes of steel are dismantled in these shipyards every year [the Daily Star].
Over the past two decades, at least 1,000 workers have died in ship-breaking yards, a joint survey of Greenpeace and International Federation for Human Rights found last year.
Accidents continue to happen, as the owners hardly ensure the safety of workers. Also, the ship breakers have been polluting the environment with carbon, chromium, lead, mercury and cadmium.
The Supreme Court directed the government to formulate a set of rules by December 14, 2011, to free the ship-breaking industry from pollution and ensure workers’ safety.
Before that, the HC in December 2010 asked the government to close down the unauthorised ship-breaking yards and ensure the safety of workers.
The court also said that scrap ships must be cleaned of all hazardous materials before entering the country, and ship-breaking operations must guarantee safe working conditions for workers and environmentally sound disposal plans for wastes.
Only last month, the government closed down two shipyards as they were set up razing several thousand mangrove trees from 14.5 acres of land in Sitakunda.