Author(s): Randolph W Tucker. Published on May 2, 2014.

FOR THE PAST NINE MONTHS I’ve served on the board of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a collaborative effort to improve fire and building safety in the Bangladesh garment industry. I’ve seen first-hand the deep challenges facing this part of the world, and I’ve also seen that positive change is indeed possible.

This work began back in October 2012, when I was contacted by Gap Inc., the global retailer that owns well-known brands like Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy. Gap Inc. had an interesting proposal: Could I help the company improve fire and workplace safety in the garment manufacturing facilities in Bangladesh where its clothing is made? Even though Gap Inc. works with fewer than 100 of the country’s estimated 6,500 registered apparel factories, its larger goal seemed to be nothing short of modernizing fire protection throughout the entire Bangladeshi garment industry.

I wasn’t sure if Gap Inc. understood the scope of such an undertaking, which I know a few things about. I serve as associate principal for fire protection/life safety for ccrd, a Houston-based engineering firm with more than 30 years of experience in healthcare, science and technology, critical facilities, and commissioning. My own experience spans more than 40 years and includes work on fire and life safety projects around the world, from hotels and retail to manufacturing facilities and industrial chemical plants. What Gap Inc. was seeking would require a complex and lengthy combination of education and training, not to mention the time and effort required to bring about meaningful fire protection and life safety changes in manufacturing facilities that had historically included few if any of these features.

In the developed world, we take for granted basic things like regular building inspections and paved roads for emergency vehicles to reach us in case of an accident. As a developing country, though, Bangladesh’s physical infrastructure—which must accommodate nearly 155 million people in an area roughly the size of Iowa—is still modernizing. Its garment industry, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the country’s exports, is no different, and a series of high-profile factory fires in recent years has brought attention to the industry and its ties to brands and retailers around the world. Last year’s Rana Plaza tragedy sparked international outrage, when more than 1,100 garment workers perished in a building collapse on the outskirts of Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital. How many more people would have to die, observers asked, before the country took meaningful steps toward workplace safety?

In fact, those steps had already begun. Alarmed by the fires and other incidents, Gap Inc. had decided to push for safer workplaces among the factories it contracts with to make its clothing; if factory owners were to continue to work with Gap Inc., they would need to provide facilities that met the company’s safety standards—which is where ccrd came in. As I researched Gap Inc., I was struck by the company’s apparent commitment to social responsibility and to a track record of progress in improving working conditions throughout its supply chain. After discussions between ccrd and Gap Inc., I was convinced that the company was serious in its desire to follow through on what it would take to make a lasting difference in Bangladesh.

The first step was a two-day planning meeting in December 2012 at Gap Inc. headquarters in San Francisco. The meeting included senior officers of the company; my lead fire protection engineer from ccrd, Rob Hicks; and myself. We decided that ccrd would begin by talking to the country’s fire service for a big-picture perspective on the problem, and move on to creating factory evaluation criteria and conducting inspections.

Gap Inc. officers also saw the need to address the bigger picture in Bangladesh, and last summer the company became a founding member of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. The Alliance currently brings together 26 retailers and brands (including Target, Wal-Mart, and VF), along with support from industry groups such as the American Apparel & Footwear Association and the National Retail Federation, to improve working conditions for the people in Bangladesh’s garment industry. Alliance efforts include inspection of all 700 Alliance member-approved factories within the first year; implementation of a common standard for fire and building safety inspections; and the establishment of tools and initiatives to protect workers, including a worker hotline where concerns about safety can be confidentially shared and swiftly addressed. Alliance members are also financially invested in the success of this initiative. To date, members have committed nearly $50 million to a worker safety fund and made an additional $100 million available in affordable access to capital to help factories implement safety upgrades.

A primary goal of the Alliance is the engagement of and partnership with the Bangladeshi government, as well as with factory owners, non-governmental organizations, and factory workers themselves, in pursuit of its goal. One key example of that partnership has been an agreement on a harmonized set of safety standards—stronger than those set forth in the Bangladesh National Building Code—to guide factory inspections and improvements by the Alliance, the Bangladeshi government, the International Labor Organization, and the Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh, another group working to improve conditions in the country’s garment factories.

The process
Three weeks after our planning meeting with Gap Inc., Rob and I made the first of a dozen trips last year to Bangladesh. I probably spent a total of three months in the country.

We first met with fire service officials to learn about the fire and life safety challenges in Bangladesh. We learned that the government had done a good job of creating the kinds of national building and fire safety codes that many other developing countries lack, codes with provisions comparable to the requirements in U.S. codes. But we also learned that enforcement was largely absent. Unless there is an enforceable building review process for expanding existing buildings, there is the risk of having non-permitted additions that create building failure disasters like the one that occurred at Rana Plaza. Recognizing the absence of enforcement after a disaster is of no value.

On subsequent trips, ccrd’s fire and life safety team met with some of the factory owners to explain the scope of the surveys we would conduct, and to get feedback from the owners on the process we planned to follow. An important aspect of the discussions was to let the owners know that we were conducting these inspections to establish a baseline of fire and life safety features in their facilities, which would be used to review the facilities and to provide the owners with information on improving fire safety features. Establishing a working partnership with the owners was important in helping them understand not only what fire protection and life safety changes needed to be made, but also why the changes would improve fire and life safety in the facilities. All of the owners gave our survey team full access to their factories.

Our original plan was to conduct a “scoping review” of a dozen or so factories to get a sense of the types of facilities we could expect to encounter and the issues we would need to address. It seemed reasonable to expect some variation in the design and construction, material handling, and processes used in the facilities. To our surprise, and with only limited deviations, we found the same design approach and the same fire and life safety issues in all of the first dozen facilities we reviewed, including the absence of doors separating exits from production areas; unprotected vertical openings; excessive dead ends in the production areas; insufficient egress width; limited water supply for firefighting purposes; storage not separated from production areas; no automatic sprinkler protection; and limited space around facilities for fire department access.

Based on these preliminary findings, we developed a review protocol to identify factory conditions and provide consistent recommendations to address deficiencies, and much of 2013 was taken up with inspections. The protocol evaluated building construction type(s) and dimensions; number of floors, and layout and uses by floor; egress paths through production areas; housekeeping in production areas; material storage methods and separation; hazardous materials usage and storage; power generation; fire alarm and detection systems; portable fire extinguishers; standpipe systems; fire protection systems; and water supply. In all, we developed more than 50 specific building aspects related to physical conditions to be evaluated and reviewed during our inspections.

After each inspection, which took from two to three days, we developed a set of recommendations for the factory owners—but our job was not complete when we handed them their customized remediation report. We worked with factory management to implement the recommendations, review their improvement plans, and help them identify companies that would import fire safety equipment not currently sold in Bangladesh, such as properly rated and installed fire doors with push release bars. Under the Alliance’s plan, improvements are paid for by factory owners.

Progress + challenges
With all the factories inspected, the current activity includes follow-ups with owners and checking on changes that have been made. The progress so far is promising. I’ve toured facilities that have installed fire alarm and detection systems, added sprinkler system protection, instituted much more thorough housekeeping procedures throughout their facilities, installed fire doors, and more. All factories will be re-evaluated regularly to assess progress in meeting Gap Inc.’s requirements.

While implementation is beginning to happen, we still face a number of challenges, including a limited number of qualified equipment installers in the country, and vendors who sell equipment and materials that do not meet appropriate fire performance ratings. While it is encouraging to see a red steel door installed in a factory, for example, we’ve often found that the doors do not meet any fire resistance rating. In the rare cases where we have seen properly rated fire doors, installers have in some instances voided the rating of the doors by cutting off the bottom six inches, or cutting holes in the doors to install small windows. We now ask factories to send us information on what they plan to purchase, who the providers are, and the installation procedures that will be used, so we can make sure the changes are done right.

Bangladesh also has infrastructure challenges that can complicate the fire and life safety efforts taking place in its garment factories. With its fast-paced economic growth, the roads in Bangladesh have become congested with traffic, hampering the ability of fire departments to get to fires in time to actually fight them. Industrial facilities and their workers need the technology and training to independently contain a fire and stop the spread of smoke. Access to this kind of expertise is a problem, though, which is why my team and I have tried to meet with as many vendors and firefighting officials as we can to help share best practices.

These are all reminders that instituting safety takes time, and that our goals for improving fire and life safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry represent a long-term proposition. Industry-wide change won’t happen overnight, but we’re starting to see progress.