Sample inspections of textile plants in Bangladesh indicate widespread fire, electrical safety and potential structural problems, according to the top safety official overseeing an effort by clothing retailers to improve conditions after a series of deadly industrial accidents in the country last year.
Brad Loewen, chief inspector of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, said pilot inspections at 10 plants showed a common set of problems he expects to recur as engineering teams begin a systematic look this week at some 1,800 factories used by the 150 international retailers and clothing brands who have joined the agreement.
Fire exits, he said, are typically not separated from the rest of the building, leaving those inside exposed to heat, flames and smoke as they try to escape, rather than providing a protected passage out. Electrical systems have been expanded over time in a helter-skelter way, increasing the risk of fire. The buildings themselves often don’t match the plans on file with the government, making it uncertain whether foundations are adequate to support the size of the structures as built.
“It is a small sample, but it gives us a pretty good indication of what we are going to find. There are some common elements,” Loewen said in a telephone interview from Dhaka, where he recently relocated from Winnipeg, Canada, to take over the new program.
The Accord, a consortium brought together by European retailers who committed to fund the effort and include outside oversight, is separate from the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, an effort by big U.S. retailers like Wal-Mart and Target to achieve the same ends. The Accord has more binding requirements, but the Alliance has set up its own inspection program. Several hundred factories fall under both. And both groups also have published databases listing the specific factories they cover, broadening disclosure about the network of plants that comprise the textile supply chain.
Working with unions and advocacy groups, the two organizations have come up with common inspection standards, and Loewen said the hope is to both improve conditions in the short run and help Bangladesh build its own capacity to oversee the sprawling industry. Since the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza near Dhaka last April, which left more than 1,000 people dead, attention has focused on the local political power of the textile industry in the country and on the inability of Bangladesh’s small corps of inspectors to oversee several thousand such plants.
The issue has sparked international pressure on both the retailers who source their garments in Bangladesh and on the government. The Obama administration canceled some tariff concessions granted to Bangladesh to try to force change. A variety of public campaigns have targeted the retailers. Georgetown University, for example, recently announced it would end licenses to use its logos on apparel for any company that did not join the Accord – putting as many as 11 deals with different apparel companies at risk. A university spokesman said that the Accord is considered “stronger because it is legally binding.”
Loewen’s initial assessment of conditions in the industry – a major source of clothing for the United States and other developed countries – aligns with the conclusions of advocacy and civil society groups that have pressed for more regulation of textile factories in Bangladesh.
A fire safety professional by training, with a career as a building inspector and manager at the federal, provincial and local levels in Canada, Loewen said that the ability of Bangladeshi workers to safely exit plants in case of a fire is “very compromised” and that electrical systems have been installed in a “haphazard and dangerous way.”
Suspicions about the structural integrity of the buildings – which often have multiple stories -- are such that engineers may have to take core samples from the foundations to see if they are sound, a time-consuming process. He said plants may be required to move goods, equipment or people out of upper floors of some buildings to lessen the load on the structure while tests are done.
Between now and September, Loewen said, his teams of engineers will inspect 60 to 75 plants a week and develop remediation plans to fix any problems found.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” he said, with around 80 engineers from four outside firms combining into teams with expertise in structural, fire and electrical issues.