Shipbreaking in Bangladesh: Organizational responses, ethics, and varieties of employee safety

J Safety Res. 2022 Feb;80:14-26. doi: 10.1016/j.jsr.2021.09.006. Epub 2021 Sep 23.

Abstract

Introduction: The dismantling of large ocean-going ships at the end of their productive use, or shipbreaking, has a poor reputation for employee safety in some developing countries. India and Bangladesh have recently come to dominate the global shipbreaking industry in terms of the tonnage of scrapped and recycled ships and the work is reportedly hazardous, posing significant ethical and practical risks to employee health and safety. This study aims to investigate the veracity of this reputation by identifying how different shipbreaking firms manage workplace safety, and their reasons for doing so.

Methods: Drawing on in-depth case-based research at three shipbreaking firms in Chittagong, Bangladesh, data were collected from governmental representatives, industry experts, and NGO's through interviews, site observations, and industry reports. Safety performance data (number of injuries and fatalities) were collected between 2014 and 2019 and verified from different sources.

Results: In contrast to uniformly poor outcomes, the findings show better but uneven practices of workplace safety among the three shipbreaking firms, a phenomenon that we describe as 'varieties of employee safety.' The better performing shipbreaking firms on safety outcomes had higher managerial commitment towards improving safety, provided personal protective equipment (PPE) and training, adopted formal management systems such as external certification, and had more robust management processes concerning workplace safety in place.

Conclusions: Management agency or choices towards strengthening workplace safety can positively influence safety performance outcomes in Bangladesh shipbreaking firms. We also contend that there is a close relationship between management ethics and occupational risk management in the workplace. This is a relatively novel perspective for health and safety research. Practical applications: Our empirical insights challenge common assumptions that safety practices in the shipbreaking industry in developing nations like Bangladesh are homogenous and consistently of low standard. This provides policymakers, the media, and safety practitioners with the opportunity to showcase best practices, whilst also identifying how safety in shipbreaking can be further improved for firms that are poor in their safety performance.

Keywords: Employee safety; Ethics; Management commitment; Safety performance; Shipbreaking.

MeSH terms

  • Bangladesh
  • Humans
  • Industry
  • Occupational Health*
  • Ships
  • Workplace*