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Fire Safety in Bangladesh Factories

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Fire Safety in Bangladesh Factories

| Industry Issues | January 09, 2013

Now that a lot has been said about the causes of these fires, let’s turn our focus on what can can be done to address this issue. One honest admission that many would agree with is that improvements cannot happen overnight. But, if ever, now is the time to start.

A lot has to happen on the macro level – more so from the government side and an equal bit, if not more, from the owners’ associations.  Entrepreneurs have always been given credit for initiating, enhancing and bringing the apparel industry in the Bangladesh to today’s level. Unfortunately, they are called into action yet another time. Only change is that they have to work closely with the government this time. But if the fire safety situation in the country has to improve, entrepreneurs  their buyers, owners’ association and the government has to work in tandem.

Macro Level Initiatives:

Infrastructure support in Bangladesh, as seen in other competing countries, has always left desiring for more. A sound macro level action plan should address issues such as building proper infrastructural support in industrial zones of Dhaka, Gazipur and Chittagong to start with. Roads leading to factories should allow fire department’s vehicle to reach at times of emergency. Talking of fire departments, that has its own rooms for improvements. Old equipment, inability to put out fires beyond a certain building-height are some that stands out. Dedicated and conveniently located fire service stations for industrial zone can also help in a way. Roads clogged with traffic aggravates the situation at times of emergency. Public fire hydrants in critical industrial zones should happen soon enough. We do not need any more situations where firemen has to solely rely on a pond or canal next to the factory to access water from. Overall, fire department needs to be more vigilant in giving away fire safety clearance to factories. The legal standards that are out there should ensure basic safety given that the factories are held against those vigilantly.

Government can also play role in ensuring uninterrupted power supply in industrial areas. Frequent power-cuts and fluctuations on voltage level adds to the already weak electrical safety situations at factories.

Although never enough, but a higher amount of workman compensation can certainly create pressure on the factory to provide better safety standards. We can never put a price tag on someone’s life or permanent disability. But one has to admit that BDT100,000 (USD1280) for workplace casualty and  BDT 125,000 (USD1600) for permanent disability is just too low. This amount hasn’t been revised after the increase in minimum wage in 2010. Where the legal standards in China requires 20 years equivalent salary as compensation for death, in Bangladesh the amount does not even equate to 20 months’ salary of a worker.

From Buyers’ Side:

Roles of overseas retailers and buyers in improving workplace standards in the industry have been immense. Fair share of credit has to go to them for establishing the current level of labor compliance and safety standards in the industry.

While factories located in commercial buildings which are not meant for industrial usage run a greater risk at times of emergency, the recent big fires have taken place in factories which were not necessarily the worst in the country. Lives have been lost in factories that are located in dedicated industrial buildings. That indicates that the problem is not just H&S related. There is a social factor to it as well. No matter how many exits factory has, it won’t help if supervisors and security guards lock them out when fire alarm goes off. Either through a focused fire safety assessment or through brand’s regular compliance audits, these areas needs to be addressed as well. Electrical safety assessment also becomes important as most fires at Bangladesh factories start from overheating of electrical panels. Cheap electrical equipment, untrained electricians, frequent power cuts and voltage fluctuations do not help either.

Brands are working continuously to improve the industry as a whole rather than focusing on their suppliers. For issues such as minimum wage, brands have worked with government to address it throughout the industry. Similar effort can be played out by them in fire safety aspects.

Talking of the whole industry, buyers can certainly do a better job in having a firmer control over where their products end up being produced. We are looking at an industry of 7000 odd factories, spread over some 2500 units (multiple factories in the same building under same ownership) where only a handful does direct business with foreign buyers. A large portion of the rest are indirect suppliers or sub-contractors (authorized or otherwise) who work through agents or other direct suppliers. If brands run a similarly strong program for these indirect suppliers, the industry as a whole would benefit from their strong initiative.

At Factory Level:

At the end of the day, management of each factories has to take major portion of the responsibility to address the issue. Having a full-proof fire safety procedure is the first step. Arranging sufficient number of exits is one thing but maintaining an informed workforce that knows what to do and what not to during emergencies is equally important. Electrical safety measures has to be taken as part of the overall fire safety initiative. Building safety and construction safety haven’t come into focus thus far but as the industry grows older, these will start posing threats as well. Factories located in shared facility should put in place a robust fire safety standard as they run the worse risk. On a different side, the higher inflow of orders and a tiring workforce will jointly put pressure on greater overtime works which can result in overheating of machines and electric equipment. A balancing line needs to be drawn.

All stakeholders, including the workers group and NGOs, need to chip away with their best effort if we are to make inroads in fire safety improvements in Bangladesh. A concerted effort can create the necessary synergy to achieve what we should have had done pro-actively before losing valuable lives.

About the author

Saif is a labor rights enthusiast.

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