Midway through a five-year effort, an NFPA team visits Bangladesh to assess the progress made in garment industry worker safety.
BY JESSE ROMAN
JUST BEFORE 9 a.m. on April 24, 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, came crashing down in a nightmare of rubble, dust, and bodies. Thousands were employed in the building, most of them in garment factories.
Three weeks later, when the search for survivors ended, the death toll stood at 1,129. Another 2,515 had been injured, many with crushed limbs that had required amputation. It was the latest calamity in Bangladesh’s historically dangerous garment industry; prior to the Rana Plaza collapse, at least 700 people had been killed in fires and other accidents since 2005, according to the advocacy group Labor Rights Forum.
In response to those tragedies, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a coalition of 26 American and Canadian retailers, was formed. Months after the Rana Plaza collapse, the Alliance announced the launch of a five-year effort to inspect and oversee safety remediation of the roughly 650 garment factories in Bangladesh that its member companies—the Gap, Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, and others—do business with. (A similar group, called the Accord, was created in 2013 to improve safety in the country’s factories producing products for European companies.) Collectively, factories affiliated with Alliance companies employ roughly 1.2 million people, an estimated 80 percent of whom are women.
In August, about two and a half years after the creation of the Alliance, a team from NFPA traveled to Bangladesh for two weeks to assess the Alliance’s effort and to make recommendations for how safety can be sustained at the end of the group’s five-year commitment in 2018. The results of the NFPA fact-finding trip will be detailed in a report due out in January, but participants in the recent mission say the work accomplished so far is making a difference.
In its first year, the Alliance inspected all 650 factories and provided each with a remediation report, including recommendations for fire and life safety upgrades. Twenty factories have already completed the work. In addition, more than a million factory workers have taken a one-day training on fire and electrical safety, as have all factory security guards. A hotline has been established for workers to report problems or safety concerns; safety signs have been erected; exit drills have been instituted; worker safety committees are in the process of being established; and many factories have hired technical or engineering staff to help ensure safety systems function and are compliant.
“The Alliance has really raised the awareness of the fire safety issue, and that in itself has had a big impact,” said Kathleen Almand, NFPA’s vice president of Research and a member of the NFPA team that visited the country in August. “Everywhere we went, Bangladeshis would tell us they wanted to know more about NFPA codes and standards—everybody from firefighters asking about fire codes to engineers at a factory wanting to know more about the National Electrical Code®. It’s very positive.”
Fire and life safety challenges
While most Americans have no direct connection to Bangladesh, it’s almost certain that something in their wardrobes does; the country is the second-largest supplier of clothes to the West, next to China. Bangladesh has a population of about 155 million people, who are squeezed into an area the size of Iowa, and about 4 million of those people work in the garment industry, which accounts for roughly 80 percent of the nation’s exports. During its two-week visit, the NFPA team visited more than 15 factories and held 28 meetings with industry groups as well as governmental and non-governmental organizations. That included meetings with factory owners, fire departments, regulators, engineers, and Alliance employees.
Although much progress has been made, Bangladesh has enormous hurdles to overcome for garment-industry safety to be comparable with safety standards in the West, said Randy Tucker, an Alliance board member as well as an NFPA technical committee member and Board member.
“One of the big challenges is they really don’t have a good understanding of fire and life safety issues yet—basic things like protecting the stairs so there is a way of getting out of the building” in an emergency, said Tucker, who has personally visited more than 60 factories in Bangladesh. “They also don’t have water supply systems in some areas, making it very difficult to fight a fire, which is why we’re helping fire departments find ways get water supplies to these locations. We’re also helping factories find ways to have their own water supplies, so that if there’s a fire the fire department can actually do something to help the facility.”
Regulation is also lacking in Bangladesh, with too few people overseeing too many factories, Almand said. “The challenge is how to transmit safety knowledge to the country’s more challenging enforcement infrastructure,” she said. “The willingness is there. It’s just that in any environment you have to find the right way to make it happen.”
The lessons learned in the Bangladesh effort could be invaluable going forward. While the immediate goal remains improving safety for the country’s workers, Almand said, it’s also a tremendous learning opportunity for NFPA that could inform how it moves forward with its mission of eliminating fire deaths across the world.
“We see Bangladesh as a ground zero for fire safety in the garment industry in developing nations,” she said. “What we learn there will help NFPA as we consider the education, training, codes, and other information resources to bring to other countries and industries. This will all be very instructive.”