Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on May 2, 2016.

Safer Sewing

NFPA releases its final report on improving safety in Bangladesh's garment industry.

BY JESSE ROMAN

BETTER TRAINING, more frequent building inspections, improved code-development, ongoing fire safety education—those are just a few of the nearly 40 recommendations included in a new NFPA report detailing how Bangladesh can instill and maintain safer working conditions for its roughly 4 million garment industry workers.

NFPA Conference Session
NFPA Conference & Expo, Las Vegas, June 13-16, 2016

Garment Factory Fire Safety: A Bangladesh Perspective
Wednesday, June 15, 9:30 AM to 11:30 AM

Kathleen Almand, Olga Caledonia, Randy Safer, and Ray Bizal, NFPA; Noah Ryder, Fire & Risk Alliance, LLC

The 34-page report, “Bangladesh Ready-Made Garment Industry High-Level Assessment Report,” is the culmination of NFPA’s involvement in a five-year effort spearheaded by the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a coalition of 26 American and Canadian retailers including the Gap, Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, and others. The Alliance asked NFPA to visit Bangladeshi garment factories and consider how best to achieve safer working conditions, as well as how to sustain those conditions. The dangerous conditions and lax inspection practices in the factories gained international attention in 2013 when the eight-story Rana Plaza factory building in Dhaka collapsed, killing 1,129 people and injuring thousands more. Prior to the collapse, at least 700 Bangladeshi workers had died in garment factory accidents since 2005, according to the International Labor Rights Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group.

NFPA’s final report, released in January, provides concrete short-term recommendations for the Alliance while it remediates existing factories, such as regular inspections during construction and training factory owners and managers in fire safety. The report also includes many forward-looking recommendations for systematic change—many of which, basic by Western standards, offer a sobering impression of how far Bangladesh must go to achieve modern safety standards. Recommendations include setting up a formal system for reviewing and permitting new buildings; establishing a system for ongoing building inspections; and developing certification programs for contractors installing fire protection systems. NFPA will keep close tabs on progress to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t, said Don Bliss, NFPA’s vice president of field operations.

“There are two main questions at this point: can this effort be sustained, and is it possible to reproduce this in other places? We don’t know the answers yet,” he said.

Bliss and others at NFPA hope that the Bangladesh effort could be a roadmap for how NFPA assists developing nations. Opportunities to help internationally are everywhere, and increasing. NFPA, for instance, is already engaged in a new project assessing and improving code enforcement and building inspection practices in Ethiopia.

“We're a 120-year-old organization that helped the United States grow from a developing nation, safety-wise, into what it is today,” Bliss said. “We have all this knowledge and an obligation to share it with the developing world. It’s not only Bangladesh with these issues.

“I like to think that we provided them with a valuable service,” Bliss said of the Bangladesh project. “But we also learned a tremendous amount. We have a much better understanding of the needs and challenges of the developing world.” To read the report, as well as previous NFPA Journal coverage of efforts to improve fire and life safety among Bangladesh's garment industry workers, visit the NFPA webpage on Bangladesh.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Reuters