The complex merchant vessels, passenger ships and ships of war of the 1990s comprise tons of steel and aluminium as well as a variety of materials that range from the most common to the very exotic. Each vessel may contain hundreds or even thousands of kilometres of pipe and wire equipped with the most sophisticated power plants and electronic equipment available. They must be constructed and maintained to survive the most hostile of environments, while providing comfort and safety for the crews and passengers aboard and reliably completing their missions.
Ship construction and repair rank among the most hazardous industries in the world. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), for example, shipbuilding and repair is one of the three most hazardous industries. While materials, construction methods, tools and equipment have changed, improved radically over time and continue to evolve, and while training and emphasis on safety and health have significantly improved the lot of the shipyard worker, the fact remains that throughout the world each year workers die or are seriously injured while employed in the construction, maintenance or repair of ships.
Despite advances in technology, many of the tasks and conditions associated with constructing, launching, maintaining and repairing today’s vessels are essentially the same as they were when the very first keel was laid thousands of years ago. The size and shape of the components of a vessel and the complexity of the work involved in assembling and outfitting them largely preclude any kind of automated processes, although some automation has been made possible by recent technological advances. Repair work remains largely resistant to automation. Work in the industry is very labour intensive, requiring highly specialized skills, which often must be utilized under less than ideal circumstances and in a physically challenging situation.
The natural environment in itself poses a significant challenge for shipyard work. While there are a few shipyards that have the capability to construct or repair vessels under cover, in most cases shipbuilding and repairing is done largely out of doors. There are shipyards located in every climatic region of the world, and while the more extreme northern yards are dealing with winter (i.e., slippery conditions wrought by ice and snow, short daylight hours and the physical effects on workers of long hours on cold steel surfaces, often in uncomfortable postures), the yards in more southerly climes are faced with the potential for heat stress, sunburn, working surfaces hot enough to cook on, insects and even snake bites. Much of this work is done over, in, under or around the water. Often, swift tidal currents may be whipped by the wind, causing a pitching and rolling working surface on which workers must perform very exacting tasks in a variety of positions, with tools and equipment that have the potential for inflicting serious physical injury. That same often unpredictable wind is a force to be reckoned with when moving, suspending or placing units often weighing in excess of 1,000 tons with a single or multiple crane lift. The challenges presented by the natural environment are manifold and provide for a seemingly endless combination of situations for which safety and health practitioners must design preventive measures. A well-informed and trained workforce is critical.
As the ship grows from the first steel plates which comprise the keel, it becomes an ever-changing, ever-more-complex environment with a constantly changing subset of potential hazards and hazardous situations requiring not only well-founded procedures for accomplishing the work, but mechanisms for recognizing and dealing with the thousands of unplanned situations which invariably arise during the construction process. As the vessel grows, scaffolding or staging is added continuously to provide access to the hull. While the very construction of this staging is highly specialized and at times inherently hazardous work, its completion means that workers are subjected to greater and greater risk as the height of the staging over the ground or water increases. As the hull begins to take form, the interior of the ship is also taking shape as modern construction methods permit large subassemblies to be stacked on one another, and enclosed and confined spaces are formed.
It is at this point in the process that the labour-intensive nature of the work is most apparent. Safety and health measures must be well coordinated. Worker awareness (for the safety of both the individual worker and those nearby) is fundamental to accident-free work.
Each space within the confines of the hull is designed for a very specialized purpose. The hull may be a void which will contain ballast, or it may house tanks, cargo holds, sleeping compartments or a highly sophisticated combat control centre. In every case building it will require a number of specialized workers to perform a variety of tasks within close proximity of one another. A typical scenario may find pipefitters brazing valves into position, electricians pulling wire cable and installing circuit boards, brush painters doing touch-up, shipfitters positioning and welding deckplates, crews of insulators or carpenters and a test crew verifying that a system is activated in the same area at the same time. Such situations, and others even more complex, take place all day, every day, in an ever-changing pattern dictated by schedule or engineering changes, personnel availability and even the weather.
The application of coatings presents a number of hazards. Spray-painting operations must be accomplished, often in confined spaces and with volatile paints and solvents and/or a variety of epoxy-type coatings, notorious for their sensitizing characteristics.
Enormous progress in the area of safety and health for the shipyard worker has been made over the years through the development of improved equipment and construction methods, safer facilities and a highly-trained workforce. However, the greatest gains have been made and continue to be made as we turn our attention toward the individual worker and focus on eliminating behaviour which contributes so significantly to accidents. While this could be said of almost any industry, the labour-intensive character of shipyard work makes it especially important. As we move toward safety and health programmes which more actively involve the worker and incorporate his or her ideas, not only does the worker’s awareness of the hazards inherent in the job and how to avoid them increase, he or she begins to feel ownership for the programme. It is with this ownership that true success in safety and health can be realized.