The dangerous business of ship salvage

The cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground four years ago. Some salvage work was done on site, but it has been hauled to port in Genoa. (Reuters)

The cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground four years ago. Some salvage work was done on site, but it has been hauled to port in Genoa. (Reuters)

It’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the world – and it pays as little as a dollar a day.

Workers dodge toxic fumes, fires, falling blocks of steel and explosions. They work at great heights without safety equipment -- and sometimes don’t make it out alive.

It's the multibillion-dollar industry of shipbreaking. From cruise ships to car carriers, tugboats to tankers, the last stop for seafaring vessels is the scrapyard, where they are stripped down, chopped up and squeezed for every last cent they are worth.

“We have documented a lot of accidents caused by falling steel blocks under which workers are crushed.”

- Patrizia Heidegger, Shipbreaking Platform

Ship-breaking yards from coastal Washington State to the shores of Southeast Asia are set to have their “busiest year on record,” according to the Baltic and International Maritime Council, which estimates that there will be 40 million tons of bulk carrier ships slated for demolition in 2016.

The process begins when ships outlive their usefulness or are damaged beyond repair. The vessels are sold to international brokers, who hire captains to guide them to ports where they can be picked apart.

Everything is salvaged, from the bunk beds to lifeboats to copper wiring. In places such as Bangladesh, workers with blowtorches slice up what’s left of the ship’s skeleton and haul the metals away to be melted down and reused in construction.

In some places, the ships are driven up to beaches, while other vessels that are declared a total loss are dealt with locally at the scene of the wreck, Mike Schuler, a senior editor at the maritime news industry website gCaptain, told

Seldom does a ship slated for salvage present the challenges -- as well as potential profits -- of the Costa Concordia, a cruise ship which struck the Italian island of Giglio in 2012, killing 32. After resting where it ran aground for two years, it was brought to Genoa in 2014 as part of a two-year scrapping operation.

Some ships, such as the bulk carrier Los Llanitos, which ran aground near Mexico during a hurricane in October, will never make it to a shipbreaking yard. The Mexican government is planning on dismantling the ship in the same rocky spot where it now rests. Crews have already removed approximately 11,484 liters (3,000 gallons) of oil, 489 cubic meters (129,000 gallons) of diesel and other contaminants aboard the ship in November, gCaptain reported.

Although safe and advanced shipbreaking platforms exist in America, Europe and China, the vast majority of ship demolition occurs in countries with some of the largest yards in the world, like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh -- where labor is cheap -- and oversight is spotty.

“We have documented a lot of accidents caused by falling steel blocks under which workers are crushed,” said Patrizia Heidegger, the executive director of the nonprofit Shipbreaking Platform, which aims to prevent labor abuses and environmental risks associated with the industry. “There are fires and explosions caused by the unsafe handling of gas cylinders or the use of open fire inside the hull without testing the level of inflammable gases.”

Heidegger told that ship-breaking also “results in sea, sand and air pollution with various toxics and the dumping of hazardous wastes.

“When scrapping an end-of-life vessel, liquid pollutants such as oil sludge or bilge water can easily be released to the sea or sediments once the hull has been cut open,” she said. “Studies have shown various negative environmental impacts on the marine fauna such as the decrease in fish population or the contamination of marine animals.”

In Bangladesh, up to 60 percent of the steel used in the country originates from the shipbreaking yards in Chittagong – one of the largest in the world, according to Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), which describes itself as a nonprofit organization working to protect shipbreakers' rights.

There, the industry hauls in an estimated $1.5 billion a year in profits, propped up by a workforce that is made up of around 11 percent child labor and 41 percent of adults between the ages of 18-22 years old, the YPSA says.

Activists in Chittagong told the National Geographic that in three to four months, the average ship in a Bangladeshi yard nets a $1 million profit on an investment of $5 million, while the business is less lucrative in Pakistan, where the same investment only brings back less than $200,000.

And for all the dangers that Bangladeshi workers face, they only earn about 1 to 3 U.S. dollars per day, according to the YPSA.

The biggest supplier of ships to South Asian shipbreaking yards is Greece, which sold 87 in 2015, according to data released Thursday by the NGO Shipbreaking Platform.

“Backed by the Greek government, they continue to refuse liability for the damage done to workers and the environment in South Asia,” the group said.

But some shipyards are learning that providing better safety for their workers and protecting the environment comes with a benefit – more business.

“Europe has made a big push to selling to shipbreakers that just don’t drive them up to beaches,” Schuler told “The industry seems to be really moving away from the irresponsible shipbreaking yards.”

The European Union is expected to publish a list of approved ship recycling facilities by the end of the year, which the NGO Shipbreaking Platform says can be used by cargo owners, investors and governments to pressure shipowners into responsible business practices.

Evan Sproviero, trader and head of projects at GMS, which describes itself as the world’s largest cash buyer of ships for recycling, said the company has seen “yards make significant progress to improve their sustainability.

“The demand for responsible ship recycling is now increasing dramatically, particularly in South East Asia where 70 percent or more of the world’s ship recycling takes place,” he told “As these yards see growth for their services based on good health, safety and environmental practices, the other yards are realizing that they have to … keep up with the changing times.”