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Beyond Bangladesh: a Global Approach to Factory Safety

In 2018, around the fifth anniversary of the infamous Rana Plaza collapse, mainstream discussion of factory safety revolves around the efforts of the Bangladesh Accord for Fire Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. On one hand, the progress made by this high-profile safety duo is undeniable; and Bangladesh, being home of the deadliest industrial collapse in modern history, deserves the spotlight. On the other hand, the continuing attention on Bangladesh can make it appear uniquely flawed, a solitary hotbed of safety issues. In reality, however, every low-cost manufacturing destination is fraught with structural risks.

A cursory glance at the headlines mentioning factory fires and collapses in the last few years returns a litany of countries from Pakistan to Indonesia. The data from the ground corroborates the scale and gravity of the problem. A summary of the findings from thousands of on-site structural audits conducted by AsiaInspection (AI) in 2017 shows consistently high percentages of factories in need of remediation in the short and medium term, from 58 percent in Cambodia, to 71 percent in China and 82 percent in India. One quarter into 2018, the situation has not improved: while it may be too early to comment on country-specific trends, the AI Q2 2018 Barometer shows less than a third of all factories audited received a passing grade for combined structural, fire, and electric safety.

Major Risk Factors for Structural Safety

No two countries are the same, and even within the same country, every factory has a unique host of safety challenges linked to its location, history, specialization, management practices, and countless other factors. Nevertheless, a large body of data allows AI to identify the most powerful risk factors contributing to loss of life and property in industrial fires and collapses, and they are:

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  • Unauthorized structures and modifications
    Such makeshift structural additions can range from mezzanines and rooftop water tanks to entire extra floors, all constructed without proper design, safety assessment or permits, and severely compromising the load conditions of the building. Also included in this category is unauthorized change of buildings’ purpose, which was the main culprit behind the collapse of Rana Plaza: the structure, originally designed as a shopping and commercial space, was never intended to bear the weight of industrial machinery.
  • Factory size and age
    Audit statistics show that smaller factories (under 20,000 m2) are 20 percent more likely to be at risk compared to larger facilities. The same is true for factories older than 15 years. In both cases, the smaller and older facilities are usually owned by SMEs, which lack the funding necessary for retrofitting or, in many cases, even basic maintenance.
  • Violation of fire safety regulations
    In 2013, the fire safety briefing by Sedex identified fire safety non-compliances as the most prevalent Health & Safety issue globally. Five years on, this trend is yet to be reversed: the majority of critical non-compliances observed by AI in Q1 2018 were attributable to fire safety issues. These violations can range from improper storage of flammable products, to outdated or insufficient firefighting equipment, to, in the most egregious cases, complete lack of fire exits and escape routes.
  • Environmental factors
    In areas affected by monsoons, high humidity, seasonal flooding, high groundwater levels, or seismic activity, the risk of collapse is greatly exacerbated—especially if buildings were not designed to account for these factors, or are not being properly maintained.
  • Human factors
    When it comes to factory safety, negligence and lack of awareness of safety issues take a toll in human lives. Once again, Rana Plaza comes up as a tragic example: prior to the collapse, the workers expressed concern about the visible cracks in the building’s foundation, only to be disregarded. Meanwhile, it’s not uncommon for structural auditors to find safety violations in plain view, with the management and line staff largely unaware of the risk.

The Making of Safer Factories: Cooperation, Consistency, Corrective Action

Safety is everybody’s business, and the more parties get on board with that, the more effective any improvement efforts will become. At the end of the day, the safety of any given factory is not up to the Western brand that sources from it, nor the 3rd party auditor—it’s in the hands of the factory’s owner and management. Without their commitment, the best-designed safety program may fall flat.

The best thing a brand can do to get supplier buy-in is to forge lasting relationships, treating said supplier not as a disposable, easily replaceable manufacturer, but as a business partner whose contribution matters. With a supplier’s buy-in comes their cooperation, be it by taking part in buyer-initiated education initiatives, providing safety training for the staff, and even proactive reporting of safety issues between audits.

On that note, the plural—“audits”—is not a coincidence. While the initial structural and fire safety audit is instrumental in identifying any safety issues, on its own it’s little but a fact-finding mission. Actual improvement starts with the implementation of the Corrective Action Plan (CAP) and continuous follow-up, including annual (or even more frequent) audits to monitor remediation efforts. Failure to follow up results in situations like the 2015 fire in Gazipur, Bangladesh at a sweater factory that had already been inspected by Accord engineers, but had failed to implement its CAP in time.

Finally, when designing a safety audit program, it’s important to distinguish between the compliance-based and effective remediation approaches. Compliance-based audits check the state of the factory against all applicable codes and regulations, and aim to ensure full compliance. As both auditing and remediation resources are limited in practice, this approach does not scale well when thousands of factories are involved. By comparison, the effective remediation approach is risk-based: while all factories are still assessed for risk, in-depth remediation is prioritized based on risk severity and immediacy. This approach is more proactive, allows better scalability of audit programs, and can help ensure uniform safety conditions even in supply chains spanning multiple countries.

Sebastien Breteau is the founder and CEO of AsiaInspection, a global leading quality control and compliance service that partners with brands, retailers and importers from over 120 countries to secure, manage and optimize their supply chains using innovative sourcing solutions and real-time supply chain intelligence.