Indian Express – It’s official: Asbestos is crippling Alang workers

(Written by Sonu Jain)

5 September 2006 - For the first time, an official committee has acknowledged that asbestos is taking its toll on the ship-breakers in Alang, Gujarat, and what’s needed are sweeping reforms in their working conditions and detailed guidelines for dismantling ships and handling the waste.

The report says that almost one in six workers (16% of the workforce that handles asbestos) could be suffering from an early stage of asbestosis, an irreversible lung condition that could lead to lung cancer. In addition to this, the report highlights how the “fatal accident rate” in Alang is almost six times that in the mining industry, considered to be the most unsafe.

Set up by the Supreme Court last February — while it was hearing the Clemenceau case — the 12-member Committee of Technical Experts, headed by Prodipto Ghosh, Secretary, Ministry of  Environment and Forests, has submitted its 200-page report to the Supreme Court last week.

Though there have been several committees on Alang, this is the first one that says that ship-breaking  can — and should — be conducted in an “environmentally sound” manner following augmentation and upgradation of facilities.

According to the report, a copy of which is with The Indian Express, the experts have rolled out a detailed roadmap for upgrading the Alang shipyard operations and have highlighted alarming facts related to exposure to asbestos. Until now, the Government has denied any such link.

The committee commissioned the Delhi-based National Institute of Occupational Health to carry out a study of the health status of ship-breaking workers in Alang, specially those engaged in removal of asbestos. Besides radiological examinations, NIOH examined health records of workers available with Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health (Gujarat).

“The X-ray examination showed linear shadow on 15 of 94 workers occupationally exposed to asbestos, These were consistent with asbestosis but could be caused by other lung conditions. All of these were cases of easly asbestosis and not associated with pulmonary function abnormalities”.

Most of these workers had worked for less than 10 years. Normally, it takes more than 10 years for full-blown asbestosis to develop but its onset is hastened with higher levels of exposure. In ships brought for breaking, free asbestos is usually present as thermal insulation of boilers and floor tiles. When this asbestos is removed, its particles become air-borne and attack the lungs.

Based on these findings, the report calls for further investigation of the cases and careful follow-up with High-Resolution Computerised Tomography which is a better diagnostic tool than radiography for asbestosis.

This isn’t the only problem. According to the report, the accident rate in Alang is much higher than the national average. Data on fatal accidents during the last 10 years show an average annual incidence of fatal acidents in ship breaking to be 2 per 1000 workers while the figure for the mining industry (considered to be the most unsafe) is 0.34 per 1000.

The report says that the Supreme Court directives in 1995 for asbestos-exposed workers should be followed and all “stakeholders,” including medical professionals need awareness and training on health issues related to asbestos exposure.

Alang is a 10-km ship-breaking yard in Gulf of Cambay in Gujarat. It is one of the largest in the world _in 1998, there were 300 ships per year and the yard had 35,000 workers, mainly migrants from Orissa, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. With a lull in ship-breaking activity — largely because of heightened environmental scrutiny—business in Alang is down to 100 ships and 5,000 workers. Even today, it provides indirect employment to about a lakh people.

The spotlight has been on Alang since December last year when the French aircraft carrier Le Clemenceau was headed for dismantling. After reports of large quantities of asbestos and PCBs, the ship was recalled by the French government.

A few months later, another large commercial ocean liner Blue Lady has been sold to an Alang ship breaker and the dismantling work has just begun.

7-step clean-up

The report recommends:

Detailed guidelines for anchoring, beaching and breaking.

Mandatory dismantling and recycling facility managment plan for all ships.

Landfills for dealing with waste like oil or PCBs.

Monitoring of air, sea and sediment quality

An industry review committee to monitor progress

Range of measures for workers’ welfare