The IMO’s published guidance for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships has been readily available for a number of years. This guidance provides details of basic standards that must be met, in an effort to ensure that events such as this do not happen.

The guidelines cover simple, obvious criteria that all recycling facilities should be adhering to, regardless of their location or method of recycling; facility operation, facility management, environmental compliance, worker training, and rudimentary health and safety requirements. These requirements include safe-for-hot-work conditions; fire prevention, detection and response; and the implementation of a robust emergency preparedness and response plan. It would seem that the tragedy at Gadani is yet another example of such standards not being met.

Accidents can happen at the best of recycling facilities. But lessons are learned when procedures aren’t followed at well-organised facilities. Individuals, or companies, are held accountable for not following documented working practices and existing processes are then further improved. However, the most basic health and safety requirements are still not being followed at the majority of the world’s shipbreaking yards. In too many cases, processes and procedures are virtually non-existent.

So how can the shipping industry help to prevent disasters such as this from happening again? There is an argument that the entire shipbreaking industry in South Asia should shut down and move elsewhere. Regardless of whether this solution is practical or not, we have to assume that shipbreaking in the region will continue for the foreseeable future, and will not move from the beach to purpose-built facilities overnight. And that means that fundamental issues must be addressed in the interim period.

As a bare minimum, the shipping industry must demand that factual and workable ship recycling facility plans are produced detailing how individual facilities comply with the minimum global standards. These must be reviewed by independent, trustworthy, knowledgeable third parties. Feedback should be provided to help ensure documentation can be improved, and to ensure compliance with published standards. But that is just the start. A series of site inspections must then be conducted, over months or even years, to ensure that written procedures are actually adhered to in practice. Advanced training programmes including assessment of learning outcomes are also essential. And shipbreaking activities must be taking place during the site inspections, in order that facility operations can be assessed. Such projects are already underway in India, and are genuinely bearing fruit.

A quick one or two day review of a facility’s paperwork followed by the issuance of a statement of compliance is not the way forward. I fear that the ship recycling industry in South Asia is rapidly progressing to being a certified industry, and not necessarily a compliant one.

Perhaps in the future a new and successful business model will present itself in the region, and that will lead to the recycling industry deciding to shift towards purpose-built facilities away from the beach. Although unlikely in the next few years, ‘off the beach’ is a worthwhile ambition. Perhaps all parties will look back in 20 years and wonder how things were still done in this way.

Whatever the future holds, we must work together as an industry to demand and actively drive immediate improvement. Although still raw, I hope that some good can come from this terrible incident. I hope it will serve as a wake-up call for the industry as a whole, and that genuine improvement projects already underway are only the first steps towards a significantly brighter future.