In the crowded conference center here in Bangladesh’s capital, fire alarms sounded this week – but fortunately there was no fire. Exhibitors at this building and fire safety expo were showing potential customers their wares. At some 90 booths, companies displayed fire alarm systems, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and other equipment.
About 10,000 people attended this week’s three-day conference to learn about equipment and practices that will make the country’s garment factories safer. It was only the second expo of its kind in Bangladesh, where much of the equipment – such as imported metal fire doors – is completely new to the industry.
This past February, at the first building and fire safety expo, organizers expected 300 people to attend; instead 3,000 showed up.
"It’s an emerging market for fire safety systems," said Sammit Gupta, regional manager for the U.S. sprinkler company Viking. Standing at his booth as crowds thronged the center, he observed there’s been "a drastic change" in interest.
In April 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza in Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring 2,500 – making it the world’s deadliest garment factory disaster. The bustling expo reflects the next phase for garment factories as they strive to meet international safety standards.
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest maker of garments after China. The $19 billion industry employs 4 million people and drives the economy. The garment industry is under enormous pressure to make factories safe places to work.
These two groups were formed in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster. The Accord represents 190 mostly European retailers and brands such as H&M, Mango and Primark. The Alliance represents 26 North American companies such as Wal-Mart, Macy’s and Target that source from factories in Bangladesh.
There are still about 3,000 factories not covered by the Alliance or the Accord.
During inspections, 30 factories were deemed beyond repair and closed. These were "factories that could have been the next Rana Plaza," said Dan Mozena, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, during an industry summit held concurrently with the fire safety expo.
Factories need upgrades
Now factories are fixing problems. "Inspections were the easy part. Remediation is the hard part," said Ian Spaulding, senior adviser to the Alliance.
"For the vast majority, 98 percent, we didn’t have eminent risks. But we do have other risks such as a lack of fire doors; egress routes that were too narrow; inadequate water supply for sprinkler systems. We didn’t have sprinklers. These are the issues we’re trying to remediate now and over the next two years."
Common violations at factories included overloading buildings with bundles of cloth, keeping heavy water tanks on roofs or using accordion-style metal gates instead of doors. Electrical wiring also often is poorly maintained and unprotected.
Expo offers pointers
At the expo, engineers and other experts gave workshops on fire doors, sprinklers and exits, and building engineering and safety.
Installing fire doors or strengthening pillars is expensive and time-consuming. But factories can do simple things to dramatically improve safety.
Just cleaning electrical wires of dust and lint can make a big but inexpensive difference, said Rob Wayss, the Accord’s executive director.
"Over 75 percent of the fires in factories are caused by electrical sources and electrical sparks," he said. "Cleaning up those wires and reducing the likelihood of sparks in the first place – and getting the highly-flammable lint and dust off of the wiring systems and off of the areas around the circuit boxes – is a huge preventive measure…."
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of factory workers are being trained in fire and safety measures.
Providing training and changing mindsets is just as critical as new equipment for Bangladesh’s garment factories. The hard work of both factory remediation and changing behavior still lies ahead.