Ship breaking: Newfoundland’s legacy with one of the most hazardous jobs

Watch: Ship breaking operations at a Newfoundland shipyard have left an unhealthy legacy. Ross Lord explains.

VANCOUVER and MARYSTOWN, N.L. – When old ships reach the end of their ocean-sailing life, they often go to shipyards in developing countries to be broken into scraps.

But the workers who tear apart the no-longer-seaworthy ocean liners and tankers put their health, and lives, at risk to salvage whatever materials scrap dealers can sell.

In the process, thousands of manual labourers, working with limited or no protective gear, are exposed to toxins including asbestos for pay that does not come close to compensating for the risk.

Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, China and Turkey are the biggest markets for ship breaking and salvage.

The International Labour Organization reported 90 per cent of the world’s ship breaking occurs in those five countries.

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In Bangladesh alone, the industry brings in around $800 million a year through its ship breaking yards dotting the Indian Ocean coast, according to the Independent.

Newfoundland’s ship-breaking legacy

But it wasn’t that long ago, before the industry came under international scrutiny, that the Newfoundland town of Marystown had a ship-breaking operation.

Leo Gaulton worked as a security guard at the Marystown Shipyard four decades ago and was there in 1970 during the dismantling of the passenger ferry SS Baccalieu and its sister ship SS Burgeo. The conditions weren’t much better than what labourers in South Asia deal with today, he said.

SS Baccalieu was uilt in Paisley Scotland 1940 and dismantled in Marystown N.L. in 1970. (Photo via Maritime History Archive). Public Photo/Maritime History Archive

“All the paint and corrosion and stuff that was on that boat was burnt and you could smell it all over the yard,” Gaulton told Global News. “Everybody was there just burning away, just breathing that in. All they had on was their safety glasses and their hard hat.”

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Gaulton blames the working conditions for his prostate cancer and his heart problems.

“Out of that 500 or 600 people, I’m safe on saying that’s probably 50 per cent of them [came] down with some sort of cancer,” Gaulton said. “Some of them are already gone and some are still suffering, as we speak.”

The Newfoundland and Labrador government owned the shipyard since it opened in 1967 until the early 1990s, when it was privatized.

The province’s Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (WHSCC) compensated 15 former workers following a 2007 occupational disease claim filed by Local 20 of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW)/Marine Workers Federation.

A Feb. 22, 2007 a CAW news release stated the claim stemmed from exposure to asbestos: “Seven claims for lung cancer and eight for various types of gastrointestinal cancer (such as cancers of the stomach and bowel) are being filed with the WHSCC. The claims state that all these illnesses relate to asbestos exposure at the shipyard.”

But, a bigger push for compensation has emerged now that there is a much bigger uproar over the hazardous industry.

Bernadine Bennett and Bertha Smith formed the Marystown Shipyard Families Alliance, a group lobbying for compensation for former employees who fell ill and their surviving family members. Both women lost family members and say the shipyard is to blame.

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“To now include ship-breaking in what we have already confirmed as very high exposure levels [to toxins], certainly speaks to the tsunami of occupational disease and deaths we have seen from the Marystown Shipyard group of workers,” Bennett told Global News.

“I’m hoping that WHSCC and our government will finally recognize our workers’ claims, because of these extreme, hazardous conditions that they worked in,” Smith said.

The alliance makes ship breaking a big part of its next submission to the compensation commission, coming in the next few months. WHSCC said it is open to hearing new evidence.

The group has attained the services of accident and injury lawyer Ches Crosbie, for free, who said the “human cost” of ship breaking is still being felt.

“Back in Newfoundland in those days, the standards were lower and we were regarded as a third-world place ourselves. It was a place where the dirty jobs could be done and in fact they were done, in Marystown” Crosbie said.

He told Global News 100 former workers are now pursuing compensation.

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The dirty, dangerous job of ship breaking

In this picture taken on July 29, 2008, Bangladeshi labourers work infront of docked ships at a shipbreaking yard in Sitakundu, on the outskirts of Chittagong. Bangladesh’s High Court has given the country’s 36 ship-breaking yards two weeks to cease work because of their failure to fulfil environmental regulations, a lawyer said March 18, 2009. (Photo: Farjana Khan Godhuly/AFP/Getty Images). Farjana Khan Godhuly (AFP)/Getty Images


Brussels-based Shipbreaking Platform – a coalition of environmental, human and labour rights non-governmental organizations — has been working to “prevent toxic end-of-life ships from being beached in developing countries. ”

According to the organization, there are a number risky substances that workers can be exposed to in the demolition of vessels.

Aside from asbestos, those can include: heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, polychorinated biphenyls (PCBs), carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), contaminated bilge water and ballast water containing sediment and bio-organisms.

Earlier this year, The Independent reported, “Most ships contain an average of 15,000 lbs [6803.89 kilograms] of asbestos and 10 to 100 tons [9.07 to 90.7 metric tonnes] of lead paint.”
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On top of the risk of being exposed to toxic substances, Shipbreaking Platform points out there is also the potential for workers to be injured or killed by fire, explosions, falling objects or even suffocation.

A 2010 World Bank report on ship breaking in Pakistan and Bangladesh noted there were as many as 1,200 workers who had been killed, over a 30-year period, in the ship breaking yards in Bangladesh’s Chittagong delta.

The situation in Pakistan appeared somewhat better, as far as safety was concerned. The World Bank report said the Gadani ship-breaking yards, in Balochistan province, have “a higher degree of mechanization than in Bangladesh, which mitigates some risks.” But, the report noted more work needed to be done to modernize the industry.

The World Bank also reported workers at the Gadani yards were able to form a labour union.

But according to Al-Jazeera, Pakistan does not have laws that govern ship-breaking work and labourers got a mere $5 per tonne of scrap and Global Post reported many of them are unregistered migrant labourers.

By comparison, the daily wage in the Bangladesh’s Chittigong yards was about $3 CAD per day.

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