World - Obsolete ships and offshore structures – an urgent safety challenge

Urgent action is needed to make the decommissioning of thousands of offshore structures and ships safer argues Professor Susan Gourvenec, Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies in Intelligent & Resilient Ocean Engineering.

The global shipping fleet numbers over 50,000 vessels and supports 90% of world trade and there are currently more than 10,000 offshore structures installed in our oceans and seas, providing energy from hydrocarbons to renewable resources.

In 2020, 70% of the world’s end-of-life ships and floating offshore structures were decommissioned on three beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan

Deconstructing ships and offshore structures at the end of their engineered life is a complex and frequently hazardous business. Although decommissioning can be carried out safely and responsibly—and there are places where it is—the reality is that it often isn’t. The International Labour Organization classifies shipbreaking—breaking down all types of vessels from luxury cruise liners to bulk carriers, floating oil and gas rigs and drilling units—as being among the world’s most dangerous occupations, with unacceptably high levels of fatalities, injuries, and work-related disease. Lack of hazardous waste management also has severe consequences for surrounding communities and the environment.

A global responsibility is being shirked

Despite the global benefit derived from offshore structures and ships during their operational lives, the risks associated with their decommissioning are disproportionately focused on South Asia. In 2020, 70% of the world’s end-of-life ships and floating offshore structures were decommissioned on three beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – a total of 446. Decommissioning on these beaches typically takes place with inadequate infrastructure, equipment, and waste disposal. Vessels arrive laden with toxic materials that, legally, should have been disclosed and disposed of before reaching the beach, and workers, communities and the environment are harmed as a result.

offshore decommissioning
Deconstructing ships and offshore structures at the end of their engineered life is a complex and frequently hazardous business. Image: Gudellaphoto via stock.adobe.com

For fixed and subsea oil and gas infrastructure in mature decommissioning areas like the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico, safe decommissioning practices and pathways have been established. However, many regions worldwide with a less mature oil and gas industry are only just facing the first wave of decommissioning and lack regionally specific infrastructure, waste disposal facilities, processes, or policies. This poses a significant safety threat and a complex stream of waste for recycling facilities.

A complex challenge requiring global collaboration

In 2019, the Engineering X Safer End of Engineered Life (SEEL) mission convened a global workshop about safer decommissioning of offshore structures and ships, with stakeholders from across academia, industry, policy makers and NGOs. The workshop mapped out critical safety issues where they are most prevalent, along with the causes and potential solutions. It was clear that the decommissioning of these assets is an engineering challenge that also involves economic, social and governance issues.

Read more.