BRAC Exec on fire prevention at ready-made garments factory in Bangladesh – Sourcing Journal
Factory fires are costly and often deadly, and they have increasingly global implications. In 2020, they were the leading cause of supply chain disruption globally, for the third consecutive year. They are also becoming more frequent – Resilinc, one of the world’s leading supply chain monitoring and risk management companies, recorded the most factory fires in a single year in 2021 since she began tracking fires ten years ago.
How can we prevent them from starting? Crucial information can be obtained from the garment industry of Bangladesh, the world’s second largest garment exporter.
Fire safety is still an issue in Bangladesh, a decade after safety concerns first made international headlines. A new initiative from BRAC is making strides to change that and bringing information to factories around the world. These lessons involve creating a culture – not just an infrastructure – of safety.
A fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh in 2012 killed 123 workers. The following year, the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh killed 1,134 workers (and survivors report deteriorating health). Global outcry was immediate, not least because many workers were filling orders with Western companies. The Government of Bangladesh has taken action and two initiatives – the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety, signed by global unions, factories and brands – have catalyzed much-needed action. But both initiatives only lasted five years and were aimed at the export market. Most of the country’s thousands of factories serving the domestic market were not covered. Actors in the apparel supply chain were also not affected.
On top of that, there could be as many as 60,000 factories in Bangladesh, many of which pose similar fire risks. The death toll continues to rise following a fire at a container depot near the country’s largest port which had no fire safety plan in place. So far, 49 people have been killed, including firefighters, and hundreds more have been injured.
The key to meeting the fire safety challenge is to create a culture of safety.
Infrastructure is the main by-product of the initiatives. This was prioritized in part because it can be measured and verified. Western brands then have proof that they meet certain standards. But a culture of safety is vital to ensure that the infrastructure is used effectively, that the measures in place are there for the long term, that progress continues, and it is even more vital when the infrastructure is limited. In factories serving international markets, safety management systems extend understanding beyond simple compliance; in domestic factories it can be practically everything there is.
BRAC’s initiative is focused on creating this culture, assessing and reducing risk, going beyond simple compliance, providing essential training and building an overall commitment to safety. Based on our work in 400 garment factories so far, the following information has become clear.
First, security strategies must be realistic. They must adapt to the decor. It is one thing to require fire alarm and suppression systems in large factories serving international brands; it is quite another to expect them to be settled in smaller informal settings that lack these resources. Small factories can afford other approaches, however, including fire prevention and fire safety training.
That’s not to say that no company should be let off the hook; it means focusing on efficiency. If the requirements are too great, they will simply be ignored.
Second, prevention is better than treatment. Treatment is vital, but preventing the problem is even more beneficial. Then there is no fire, no damage, no loss of life and no loss of business.
This is especially true for tightly clustered factories. In some areas, hundreds of factories are located next to each other or are intermingled with high-density office buildings. In any city, the security of each building depends on the neighboring building. Prevention becomes vital for everyone.
Risks must be considered and prioritized, and steps must be taken to eliminate or minimize them. Have the chemicals been separated to avoid combustion? Has cotton dust been reduced to minimize fire outbreaks? Are the exit routes known, accessible and practicable?
A common hazard we see is that pathways are clear when workers are working, but workstations have piles of clothing that are pushed down hallways when people leave their workstations. This means that as soon as people start leaving their workstations en masse, as if to flee, the routes become impassable.
Third, basic safety equipment must be present everywhere. Small factories may not be able to meet expensive requirements, but an appropriate level of fire safety equipment should always be present, even if it is just buckets of sand or water, d extinguishers and blankets.
Fourth, train the right people. Too often, training focuses only on workers and does not include specific modules for production supervisors, guards and management. Safety is seen as a checkbox of Western brands, not a core leadership responsibility. Staff at all levels are disengaged and their expertise is not integrated into the strategy.
The effects can be fatal. “Just a day before the collapse, the building was briefly evacuated when cracks appeared in the walls. However, the workers were then allowed to return or were invited back by the owners of the factory,” said reported the BBC following the Rana Plaza disaster.In 2021, when a fire broke out at a fruit juice factory killing 52 people, it was later discovered that a keyed emergency door leading to the balcony was locked.
Everyone should be included in a fire safety plan.
Fifth, create universal expectations. Establish a set of values that are fundamentally accepted. It starts with this: life is more important than profit; if a fire breaks out, no matter how small, everyone must leave the building; everyone has the right to file a complaint for violation of fire safety, and no one will be punished for it.
The beauty of creating a culture of safety is that every business can afford it. That means it’s scalable globally and across industries. This culture can be reinforced by an infrastructure that reflects a company’s resources, but no company has an excuse not to create it. Failing to meet this challenge has consequences for the entire world.
Jenefa Jabbar is Director of Social Compliance and Safeguarding at BRACbased in Bangladesh.