The apparel industry and global rights groups tend to beat Bangladesh up for its subpar fire safety standards, but when 75 out of 75 buildings in London fail fire safety tests it begs the question: is fire safety deficient in more places than we think?
Earlier this month, at least 79 people were killed in a tragic fire that felled Grenfell Tower residences in London. But what’s cause for more alarm is that this could be the first of many more fires like it in London.
Grenfell’s exterior cladding, a material typically wrapped around a building to improve appearance and energy efficiency (a kind that’s forbidden in the U.S. and other parts of Europe) was flammable. Meaning that when fires start, the cladding helps spread them.
Cheaper than fire-resistant cladding materials, the Reybond PE found in Grenfell has a flammable plastic core surrounded by sheets of aluminum. Arconic, the U.S. manufacturer that supplied the cladding, has stopped all sales of the product entirely.
Since uncovering the flammable cladding, the U.K. has scrambled to test other similar high rises, and inspecting 75 of them, 75 failed and were found to have combustible cladding. Now residences and otherwise occupied buildings are being evacuated for testing and repairs.
“This is massive. This is only the tip of the iceberg,” Arnold Tarling, a British surveyor and fire-safety expert, told the Washington Post. Cladding is not limited to high-rise apartments “but on schools, leisure centers, hospitals, office blocks, hotels—you name it.” Factories could be up next.
A fire crisis like this may be more expected in a developing nation like Bangladesh compared to a developed nation in the West, but the loose regulation in fire safety that brought London’s Grenfell down may be evidence that that’s not the wisest way to think.
What’s more, because factories are now constantly inspected in Bangladesh and people are paying attention, deadly factory fires may actually be less likely to happen there than elsewhere.
In May, following the four-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse, which cast all eyes on compliance in Bangladesh and gave rise to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the Accord said more than 1,800 factories have been inspected for fire, electrical and structural safety and more than 100,000 hazards were uncovered. More than 36,000 of those findings were tied to fire safety and with remediation efforts including things like installing fire doors and training workers on evacuation, the Accord said 21,307 of those fire safety findings have been corrected. And now that the Accord has been renewed for another term, these inspections and corrections in Bangladesh’s garment sector are expected to continue beyond the initiative’s original May 2018 end date.
While there’s still much work to be done to get Bangladesh up to snuff in the safety department, the factory fire problem isn’t only its own.
In the last week alone there have been at least six factory fires all across the globe.
On Friday, workers were injured in a blaze that broke out at a refrigeration equipment factory in Blackpool, England. Also on Friday, a worker was trapped in a fire that broke out at a bicycle factory in Changhua County, Philippines. A worker in Tuas, Singapore died and at least one other was injured last week after a factory fire involving plastics and scrap metal. Lack of adequate safety equipment razed a cardboard factory in Gujrat, India. In Peru, fire at a hardware factory in Lima killed four workers and injured at least 17, and reports say the workers were illegally locked in the facility.
And there are more where those fires came from.
Though these aren’t all cases of apparel factory fires, the contents of the factory matter little when the structures aren’t fire safe, the equipment inside—or lack thereof—can’t handle a blaze, and workers and management are often themselves ill-equipped to know how to navigate escape routes during an emergency of that nature.
There’s no telling yet how much bigger London’s fire safety crisis will get but compliance will likely be of greater concern and those sourcing there may want to have their facilities further inspected before a tragedy befalls the brand where they may least expect it.