Factory fires are expensive and often deadly, and they increasingly have global implications. In 2020, they were the top reason for supply chain disruption globally, for the third year in a row. They’re also becoming more frequent – Resilinc, a leading global supply chain monitoring and risk management firm, recorded the most factory fires in a single year in 2021 since it began tracking fires a decade ago.
How can we prevent them from starting? Crucial insights can be gained from Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry, the world’s second-largest apparel exporter.
Fire safety is still an issue in Bangladesh, a decade after safety issues captured international headlines. A new initiative by BRAC is making headway in changing this and offers insights for factories globally. Those lessons involve creating a culture – not just an infrastructure – of safety.
A fire in the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh in 2012 killed 123 workers. The following year, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh killed 1,134 workers (and survivors report worsening health). The global outcry was immediate, particularly because many of the workers were filling orders from Western companies. The government of Bangladesh took action, and two initiatives—the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety, signed by global unions, factories, and brands—catalysed much-needed action. But both initiatives were only for five years and catered to the export market. Most of the nation’s thousands of factories serving the domestic market were not covered. Neither were actors in the apparel sector supply chain.
On top of that, there could be up to 60,000 factories in Bangladesh, many of which have similar fire risks. The death toll is still rising from a fire in a container depot near the country’s biggest port that did not have a fire safety plan in place. So far 49 people have been killed, including ine firefighters, and hundreds more have been injured.
The key to addressing the challenge of fire safety is to create a culture of safety.
Infrastructure is the main by-product of the initiatives. This was prioritised in part because it can be measured and verified. Western brands then have proof they have met certain standards. But a culture of safety is vital to ensuring that infrastructure is effectively used, that measures in place are there for the long-term, that the progress continues—and it is even more vital when the infrastructure is limited. In factories serving international markets, safety management systems extend understanding beyond mere compliance; in domestic factories, it may be virtually all there is.
BRAC’s initiative is focused on creating that culture—assessing and reducing risk, exceeding mere compliance, providing vital training, and building an overall commitment to safety. Based on our work in 400 garment factories so far, the following insights have become clear.
First, safety strategies must be realistic. They must fit the setting. It’s one thing to require fire alarm and suppression systems in major factories serving international brands; it’s another to expect them to be installed in smaller informal settings that don’t have those resources. Smaller factories can, however, afford other approaches, including fire prevention and fire safety training.
This doesn’t mean letting any company off the hook; it means focusing on effectiveness. If requirements are too daunting, they will just be ignored.
Second, prevention is better than treatment. Treatment is vital, but preventing the problem is even more beneficial. Then there is no fire, no damage, no loss of life, and no loss of business.
This is especially true for factories that are clustered closely together. In some areas, hundreds of factories are located next to each other—or are intermingled with high-density office buildings. In any city, every building’s safety depends on its neighboring building. Prevention becomes vital for all.
Risks must be considered and prioritized, and actions taken to eliminate or minimize them. Have chemicals been separated to avoid combustion? Has cotton dust been reduced to minimize fire flare-ups? Are exit pathways known, accessible, and passable?
A common risk we see is that pathways are clear when workers are working, but workstations have piles of garments on them which are pushed into the hallways when people leave their workstations. That means that as soon as people start leaving their workstations en masse, such as to escape, pathways become impassable.
Third, basic safety equipment should be present everywhere. Smaller factories may not be able to fulfill expensive requirements, but an appropriate level of fire safety equipment should always be present, even if it only involves buckets of sand or water, fire extinguishers, and blankets.
Fourth, train the right people. Too often training is focused only on workers and doesn’t include specific modules for production supervisors, guards, and management. Safety is seen as a tickbox of Western brands, not an essential responsibility of leadership. Staff at all levels are disengaged, and their expertise not incorporated into the strategy.
The effects can be deadly. “Just a day before the collapse, the building was briefly evacuated when cracks appeared in the walls. However, workers were later allowed back in or told to return by the factory owners,” BBC reported in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster. In 2021, when a fire broke out in a juice factory killing 52 people, it was found afterwards that a key escape door to the balcony was locked.
Everyone must be included in a fire safety plan.
Fifth, create universal expectations. Establish a set of values that are fundamentally accepted. It starts with this: life is more important than profit; if a fire starts, no matter how small, everyone must leave the building; everyone has the right to file complaints about fire safety violations, and no one will be punished for it.
The beauty of creating a culture of safety is that every company can afford it. This means it’s scalable around the world and across industries. That culture can be enhanced with infrastructure to reflect a company’s resources, but no company has an excuse for not creating it. Failing to meet this challenge has consequences for the whole world.
Jenefa Jabbar is director of social compliance and safeguarding at BRAC, based in Bangladesh.