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New Survey Reveals Only 2% of Bangladeshi Garment Workers Can Identify a Fire Hazard

According to a new study, an overwhelming percentage of Bangladeshi ready-made garment (RMG) workers lack basic knowledge of fire and building safety and only 2 percent can correctly identify what a fire hazard is.

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety last week released the results of a Baseline Worker Survey Report conducted at the end of 2013 that questioned 3,207 garment workers from twenty-eight factories in the Dhaka and Chittagong regions through a series of multiple choice questions and off-site (away from factories) focus group discussions, which an additional 101 workers participated in. The factories–nearly all producing for Alliance member companies–were randomly selected but the sample was stratified across factory size, product type and location.

Aside from lacking basic knowledge of safety standards, the study found that workers also feel a limited sense of responsibility and empowerment to prevent fires, and that existing training has had limited impact because training materials have not been made to account for workers’ low literacy levels.

Many workers also admitted having little faith that an adequate response or follow-up would follow if they did report fire safety concerns.

“Given the series of catastrophic incidents that have affected the garment industry over the last few years, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety- a network of 26 North American retailers- has conducted this large, comprehensive and national level study to assess the current needs, report on the existing health and safety situation, and create baseline relevant indicators for monitoring and evaluation purposes,” Hasanat Alamgir, assistant professor of occupational health at the University of Texas said in the report’s foreword.

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Alamgir said the biggest challenges garment workers in Bangladesh face can be categorized as the three E’s: engineering, education and enforcement. The study was designed to assess workers’ perspectives on health and safety risks in the RMG industry and to measure their knowledge of it.

Fire safety was the first part of the survey. Researchers gave workers six scenarios and asked them to identify potential hazards. Only 2 percent of workers could correctly identify the fire hazards. A total of 67 percent did not consider an overfilled storage room to be hazardous and 52 percent didn’t find anything wrong with electrical wires under mats or carpets.

Forty-one percent of workers said they wouldn’t know what to do in case of an emergency, and 61 percent said they know they would need to leave a blazing area using escape routes, but of the 41 percent who wouldn’t know what to do, 24 percent thought they should take shelter somewhere safe inside the building and 17 percent thought taking the elevator to exit would be prudent.

More than half (54 percent) of the surveyed workers don’t feel responsible for health and safety at work, and 73 percent think some fatal fire accidents cannot be prevented.

Results further revealed that 45 percent of workers are not trained in fire safety at all and the focus group findings showed that men are often selected over women to participate in training despite the fact more females work in factories than males.

Most workers said they had participated in drills but that the drills aren’t always carried out correctly and most night shift workers don’t get a chance to participate in drills at all.

Either way, workers who received training and took part in drills showed little more knowledge of fire safety than those who didn’t.

Twenty-five percent of workers say they feel unsafe in their factories, the biggest reason being a fear of not being able to exit the building quickly enough in the event of an emergency.

According to the report, focus group participants made comments like, “When the flame got stronger, we started to run, but found that three out of four exits were closed,” and, “I don’t think I can leave the building safely in case of emergency as the exits are closed most of the time.”

One unique finding the Alliance noted was, “While workers in general are not too concerned about their health or safety (a result likely to be related to their limited knowledge & awareness), young workers show a greater concern for both their health and their safety. This is a potential indicator that there is a new, younger generation of Bangladeshi workers that is more concerned about how their work impacts their health.”

For the industry to ever see safer factories, the Alliance suggests training programs be designed based on education levels, that workers are not just made aware of fire safety standards, but taught to understand the reasons behind certain rules and regulations and that training programs include a significant female representation, to name a few.

“If we are to see a real improvement related to garment workers’ safety, we need to support our garment industry communities in their aspirations to let the workers live healthier and happier lives by taking more control over their working conditions,” Alamgir said.

The Alliance intends to repeat the survey every six to twelve months to determine whether training and assessments are yielding the necessary benefit for workers.