Bangladesh Inspections Find Gaps in Safety

New York Times | STEVEN GREENHOUSE | MARCH 11, 2014

The April 2013 collapse of a textile factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The April 2013 collapse of a textile factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Nearly a year after a factory building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,100 workers, engineering teams sponsored by Western retailers have been rigorously inspecting that country's garment industry, resulting in at least two temporary closings because of safety problems.

Inspection reports on the first 10 factories were released Tuesday and found that some lacked adequate fire doors, did not have required sprinkler systems and had dangerously high weight loads on several floors.

The inspections were organized through the Bangladesh Accord Foundation, a group of 150 clothing brands and retailers from more than 20 countries that plans to inspect 1,500 Bangladesh garment factories by early September.

"Our inspection program is in full swing," said Brad Loewen, the group's chief safety inspector. "It's big news that we’re in full flight."

The program has 38 teams of international engineers, who, with Bangladeshi engineers and technicians, plan to inspect 250 factories each month, doing fire, electrical and structural inspections on each.

safety flaws
stresses to the building

The inspection reports released Tuesday found a lack of fire alarms and a need for better enclosure and maintenance of electrical wiring. The inspections, done in November and December, do not reflect any problems as severe as those that caused the collapse last spring of the Rana Plaza factory.

"The inspection reports contain an unprecedented level of detail and set a new standard in transparency and credibility," said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, a labor federation that helped set up the accord.

The inspectors found extensive fire safety problems at the Dragon Sweater factory in Dhaka. The report said the boiler and generator rooms as well as storage areas holding combustible materials were not separated from production areas using fireproof construction. The inspectors found that the exit stairs in the 18-story factory opened into areas used for storage on several floors and that the main exit stairway discharged inside the building, as did a rear exit stairway. The inspectors found a locked fire exit door on the 16th floor and numerous collapsible gates with locks, although they were not locked during the inspection.

The inspectors said Dragon's fire alarm system was mainly a manual alarm system that notified only individual floors. The report added, "The high-rise building is not provided with automatic sprinkler protection. The large occupant loads, heavy fuel loading, and anticipated extended egress times warrant sprinkler protection."

The reports include photos with arrows pointing to specific safety problems, like cracks in beams.

"By publishing reports and making them easily understandable with photographs, we help the workers and public understand these problems and see that they’re fixable," said Alan Roberts, executive director of the accord's international operations. He said many safety repairs had already been made to the first factories inspected.

Separately, Walmart hired Bureau Veritas, a prominent monitoring company, to inspect Dragon Sweater and more than 200 other factories it uses in Bangladesh. Its inspections last April gave Dragon Sweater Cs for electrical and building safety, Walmart's second-worst grade, and a follow-up assessment in July gave it a B for electrical safety and C for building safety.

The accord's first wave of inspections focused on buildings with at least five floors that have multiple factories. Building owners are told in advance when the inspections will occur, and are asked to locate relevant documentation, said Joris Oldenziel, a spokesman for the accord. The inspection reports are sent to the factory owner, the Western brands that use the factory and worker representatives at the factory. The recipients were to come up with remediation plans, to be published on the accord's website within six weeks of the inspection, with the Western brands promising to help finance needed improvements.

"Exits are always a big issue," Mr. Loewen said. "Usually they have lockable gates across them — they have to be removed. The stairwells have to be separated from the factory floor with fire doors. It's very common that they need to install fire doors."

Another common problem was that many factories do not satisfy the accord's requirement that sprinklers be installed on every floor of a factory building that is 75 feet or higher.

One factory owner in Bangladesh praised the inspections, saying, "No doubt, they have gone through many details, very intensively." He added, "It is good. It can shake up the mind-set." He spoke only on the condition of anonymity, fearing other factory owners might get angry at him because many are dismayed with the accord and inspections.

A photograph from the report focused on possible fire hazards.
possible fire hazards

He said this should improve factory quality and create a more level playing field among factories. He predicted that some factories could face major renovation expenses, since many do not have sprinkler systems at all.

Softex, a sweater maker that supplies the French retailer Auchan, temporarily closed this week after the accord's inspectors discovered serious structural problems, a move that resulted in the layoff of more than 3,000 workers. Labor unions criticized Softex for not paying the workers’ wages while repairs are done, while Bangladeshi factory owners have urged the Western brands to help pay the wages.

At the Viyellatex factory, fire inspectors found that two of the three exit stairways discharged inside the building rather than outside. They found that large electrical equipment was not separated by fireproof construction and that the smoke detector system did not provide automatic alarm protection. Notification was done only by manual alarm.


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