At least 52 dead in factory fire; Ecosystem failures continue in Bangladesh

Once again, a factory fire in Bangladesh has taken the lives of more than 50 workers and injured at least 20, underscoring catastrophic and systemic life safety challenges in that country. The latest incident is a prime example of a region that is and has been for quite some time, challenged by every component of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™.

According to Reuters, the building featured two stairways, which were inaccessible during the fire. Some workers fled to the roof and were rescued, but many others were trapped or jumped out of windows. Associated Press quoted a fire official saying that the main exit was locked from the inside.

This is not the first time we have heard this story from Bangladesh or from the United States, for that matter. Nearly fifteen years after NFPA was born, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire occurred in Greenwich Village (NY) on March 25, 1911. That horrific incident remains one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history with more than 146 garment workers killed – mostly from smoke inhalation or from jumping to their death due to locked stairwells and exits.

Bangladesh has struggled with factory safety for quite some time. Back in 2014, NFPA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (the Alliance) to work together to provide information, guidance, and access to resources in the interest of worker health and safety. NFPA and the Alliance recognized that cooperative and parallel efforts by the government and non-government organizations were important to achieving success. So, the Alliance identified a sample of 14 factories undergoing remediation at the time. A project team visited those sites, observed building operations, and interviewed key stakeholders from the fire and building professions, and then NFPA made recommendations for the Alliance, government officials, and others to explore or undertake. In 2016, NFPA released the Bangladesh Ready-Made Garment (RMG) Industry High-Level Assessment Report which included an appraisal and gap analysis of Bangladesh fire and building safety standards, protocols, inspection procedures, and training programs. The report referenced short-term and long-term recommendations for sustainable electrical, fire and life safety in Bangladesh manufacturing facilities.

The gaps identified at that time and those that are coming into focus as this week’s story unfolds reminds us of the Ecosystem. For example:

  • Authorities in Bangladesh need to have policies in place and practiced consistently throughout the country (Government Responsibility).
  • Current codes need to be developed and used – just like NFPA building and fire codes which are developed and then maintained on a regular basis via a consensus process (Development and Use of Current Codes).
  • As part of those current codes, there are a plethora of referenced standards, many from NFPA, that can be utilized so the fire safety wheel does not have to be reinvented (Referenced Standards).
  • Businesses and the government must invest in safety. First steps were taken with the Alliance MOU and assessment report years ago, but did action follow? Safety requires the right decisions to be made by authorities (An Investment in Safety).
  • Training is required for those that design, construct, and maintain factories (Skilled Workforce).
  • Fire code inspections and enforcement are essential for ensuring that exits, doors, and stairwells are fully operational at all times (Code Compliance).
  • First responders need resources to do their job – especially unimpeded access to incidents and water to suppress fires (Preparedness and Emergency Response).
  • And the public, including workers, need to understand fire safety and escape strategies (Informed Public).

Our hearts go out to the people of Bangladesh but it takes more than good thoughts to bring about change. By using the RMG report and the Ecosystem, officials in Bangladesh can and should connect the dots on safety.

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Cathy Longley
Communications Manager, informing stakeholders about NFPA thought leadership, subject matter expertise, resources, initiatives & research.

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