The Bangladesh Fire Safety Programme

Published:  11 July, 2014

Over the past two years, international attention has been focused on the tragic fires and building collapses that have occurred in the ready-made facilities in the developing world - what efforts are being made to protect the workers and improve the fire and life safety in Bangladesh? PRESENTATION REPORT

Robert Hicks and Randolph Tucker of Houston-based consulting engineering firm CCRD presented on their ground-breaking work in Bangladesh, during the NFPA Conference and Expo in Las Vegas in June 2014.

In November 2012 CCRD’s social responsibility team began work on a fire safety programme to help improve the safety of people in Bangladeshi factories, explained Randy Tucker. The country poses a number of challenges, not least of which is the fact that the capital city Dhaka numbers 7 million inhabitants with an additional 22 million in the surrounding area. The country itself has a total population of 160m in an area the size of Nebraska.

Heavy traffic in Dhaka means getting to a factory 20km away can take two to four hours. ‘The problem for the fire department is that it is taking them upwards of 20-40 minutes to reach a factory.’

The type of disaster faced by Bangladeshi factories is identical to that which hit the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, New York City on March 25, 1911. This was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the history of the city, and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in US history. It caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. ‘So we are seeing the same thing 100 years later. What we have to do is bring them into this century. They need training, help and understanding about how you protect these facilities.’

The risk of disaster is multiplied by the sheer numbers involved – there are over 5,000 factories in this sector, all of similar design: brick buildings with concrete floors. They are usually overloaded with combustible materials.

As part of an initial scoping progress CCRD began with the Bangladesh National Building Code (2006 edition), which is based on US and European codes. A meeting with the Bangladesh Fire Department revealed that, unfortunately, there were no mechanisms for enforcing the BNBC.

CCRD visited a number of factories to ascertain the challenge, and Randy highlighted some of the findings.

On the positive sound, CCRD found that factories had designated firefighters trained to use fire extinguishers by the local fire department and that inspections were regularly carried out by brands such as Gap and Wal-Mart. ‘We found a high level of wanting to do the right thing.’

On the less positive side, most factories – which had been built along similar lines -  generally had unprotected exits and stairs without handrails. ‘Every one of the facilities has wide open stairs, because they had been told that that was the way to get smoke out of the buildings. We all know that smoke is not going to go out of the building, it’s going to go through the buildings and then everywhere.’

Other problems included blocked exits, storage areas piled to the ceilings with materials; no separation between production and storage areas; and no automatic sprinkler protection. Many factories did have fire alarms and fire detection, but none were installed correctly. ‘Finally, we need to provide sprinklers. I’ve seen a couple of installations and unfortunately they are terribly wrong. The piping is too small; the location wrong so there is no complete coverage. They spend a lot of money and unfortunately not wisely, and we haven’t found anybody in the country who knows how to properly design them.’

A good starting point would be to align current building codes with the labour laws, from safety and training point of view, as well as to enforce building codes. Also important was to establish minimum requirements for existing buildings, as none such requirements currently existed.

Robert Hicks, then picked up some of the specific findings as regards the analysis of the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC).

The code does have a requirement for exit enclosures. ‘If this had been enforced I wouldn’t be doing a presentation here because many of the problems would not have presented themselves.’

The BNBC also has requirements for stairs to have naturally-ventilated vestibules. Again, none of the factories visited were built that way. ‘It’s going to be a challenge to make sure that we get the codes lined up with what they are actually doing.’

Fire alarms are required in the factories, with full automatic fire detection systems on the factory floors. Very few of them have them.

There are requirements for travel distance and for building height limitation. This is not reflected in reality.

‘The BNBC is written in non-mandatory language. It says, “you can do this”, or you have the option to do that”. But there is not a lot of “you must do this”. So it creates problems between those trying to build and those trying to enforce, because there’s nothing to enforce.’

In all cases, sprinkler protection is an option.

Bringing together labour laws, fire service rules, and directives adopted following incidents, was key for the safety of workers – and actually of national importance. The garment business accounts for around 80% of gross national product, a $22bn industry. ‘If we keep on having these fires, its’ going to negatively impact their country.’

Last year the Rana Plaza structural collapse in Savar, Greater Dhaka, resulted in a death toll of over 1,100 people with over 2,500 injured. This is considered to be the deadliest garment-factory accident in history, as well as the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern human history.

It also resulted in two major international safety initiatives led by international brands, which each signed multiparty agreements to make a committed effort to make changes. One is called the Accord (mostly European companies), and the other is the Alliance (mostly north American). ‘We have worked closely with them to ensure that we develop standards that we can have going forward.’

The standard firstly establishes base line requirements for existing facilities, using the BNBC as the basis, in order to achieve ‘local buy in’. CCRD has used NFPA to fill in the gaps (as well as ICC) and make some things mandatory. The Accord and Alliance groups met together with their engineers to ensure the approach was a unified one.

Robert explained how after the Rana Plaza collapse multiple companies had ‘swarmed in’, resulting in factory owners receiving (well meaning but) oft-conflicting information of what they had to do. ‘So we wanted to make sure that the two groups worked together to eliminate that confusion.’

The standard was published first at the beginning of 2014, and is a work in progress.

Robert then outlined some of the requirements in the standard, and the hazards it was attempting to address:

  • Material storage is the biggest hazard, so these rooms will need to be separated by a construction, or be sprinklered.
  • Diesel-powered generators are widely used to mitigate the effects of an unreliable power supply. There will therefore be a requirement to separate the storage of diesel from the production area.
  • Factories commonly use boilers to generate steam for ironing garments – again these will need to be separated and rated.
  • There are multiple vertical openings in the factories (often simply holes in the floor) for plumbing and electrical cabling – these will need to either be separated at the floors properly, or be in a shaft.

An important challenge to address immediately concerns enclosed exits: ‘This is the one we’ve got to address.’ The BNBC’s requirements on occupant load (i.e. the number of persons for which the means of egress of a building or portion thereof is designed) require 100sq ft area per occupant, a measurement that does not reflect reality on the ground. ‘We took the actual workers who were on the floors and measured against the square footage to try and come up with these figures.’ The average was around 25sq ft, so it was agreed by all parties (including the local government) to go with the 1 to 25 factor.

The same principle was applied to the travel requirement, which was about 150 ft to an exit in the BNBC. ‘So what we did is we put in, if they provide a full fire alarm and fire detection system throughout the facility we could increase the travel distance to 200ft and then, again, if they provided sprinkler protection that was connected to the fire alarm, we could go to 400 ft.’

Exit-path marking was another major issue to address, with many of these factories built with multiple twists and turns, or huge open arenas. ‘We developed some baseline principles pretty much following what’s required in the NFPA 101 for exits. We did provide a minimum level of requirements that they needed to provide throughout the aisle ways, so almost every single one of these factories are going to have to provide additional lighting that’s protected on an emergency power circuit.’

Sprinkler protection will be encouraged starting with storage areas first, then moving to the rest of the buildings, in a phased approach.

The human aspect of fire prevention is also being addressed. Although general housekeeping is good in the factories, maintenance of equipment is poor – which is why one of the causes of fires in these types of factories is equipment overheating. Improper storage of materials often blocks exit signs or the actual exits.

A requirements for a hot work permit system has also been introduced.

Currently the only inspection testing is regarding fire extinguishers, which will have to change once fire alarm systems and sprinklers are installed. ‘Training on how to go about doing this is going to be a big issue.’

The process

The process to develop the Bangladesh Fire Safety Programme began in December 2012, explained Randy, with the initial scoping in January 2013. Inspections started in April 13. Individual reports are now being filed with the Alliance, highlighting the issues that need to be corrected within each facility. ‘Going forward we will be doing some mediation and new building acceptance,’ concluded Randy.

About the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was founded by a group of North American apparel companies and retailers and brands who have joined together to develop and launch the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative, a binding, five-year undertaking that will be transparent, results-oriented, measurable and verifiable with the intent of improving safety in Bangladeshi ready-made garment (RMG) factories. Collectively, these Alliance members represent the overwhelming majority of North American imports of RMG from Bangladesh, produced at more than 700 factories.

The Alliance provides apparel companies and retailers the unprecedented opportunity to come together and put forward concrete solutions to issues that impact the global apparel and retail industries.


Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a five-year legally binding agreement between international labour organizations, non-governmental organizations, and retailers engaged in the textile industry to maintain minimum safety standards in the Bangladesh textile industry:

The Accord was signed by the first group of companies in May 2013 and numerous companies joined later. In October 2013, it was announced that 1,600 Bangladeshi factories were covered by the accord, representing about 1/3 of the Bangladeshi textile industry.

The Accord was sponsored and created by the IndustriALL Global Union and the UNI Global Union in alliance with leading NGOs, the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Workers Rights Consortium. It is an expanded version of an earlier 2-year accord that had been signed only by PVH and Tchibo.

In addition to schemes of building inspection and enforcement of fire and safety standards the Accord requires that contracts by international retailers with Bangladesh manufacturers provide for compensation adequate to maintain safe buildings. Retailers agree to continue to support the Bangladesh textile industry despite possible higher costs. It is estimated that the total cost may be $1 billion, about $500,000 per factory. Close cooperation with the International Labour Organization and the government of Bangladesh is required. A steering committee which governs the Accord is established as are dispute resolution procedures such as arbitration. The Accord calls for development of an Implementation Plan over 45 days.


CCRD

CCRD is a consulting engineering firm committed to sustainable systems design solutions for its clients. Since its founding in 1980 as Texas Energy Engineers, Inc., it has grown to 10 offices throughout the United States in Austin, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Miami, Nashville, Richmond, Phoenix and Washington D.C.. CCRD provides engineering services throughout the United States and around the globe. It employs more than 150 professionals and support staff.

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