Published: Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Never again

AFP

Photo: AFP

AS the clock ticks away tonight, the prospects for the survival of those 600 souls missing at Rana plaza get dimmer. Let us say never again. Let us treat this as a human tragedy that can be prevented, not a natural one which is beyond our means of control.

The catastrophe of the Spectrum Garments in 2005 was mostly a failure of the building itself. The investigation report conducted by BUET had found that the owner made changes from the design done by the structural engineers. He had made the roof slabs thicker and columns thinner; inducing a sandwich effect.

One pile cap — a cap of the slender long columns which extend down to the layer of firm soil underground and carries the base of the main columns that carry the load of the floors at the foundation level — failed owing to faulty construction (rain-water seeped in the pile cap before the concrete settled).

The Tazreen tragedy had its roots in human failure. The workers were trapped in the inferno by gross human negligence. As the fire alarms rang, workers were told by the supervisors that the alarms were not working properly. When all hell broke loose, the situation got out of control. Workers are generally put under lock and key to prevent pilferage. Almost 200 people were roasted alive.

The Rana Plaza mayhem (till now 600 people missing, 350 dead, 1,000 people injured, many maimed for life) is a combination of two failures. One is the failure of the construction of the building, which is due to its design that had been set for five stories but four more had been built.

It was also designed as a commercial building; this is a gross failure of the administration to ensure public safety.

This article aims to highlight two contexts of such calamities:
* Building issues: Safety aspects of buildings and premises; and
* Structural aspects
Most buildings which are used as factories are not designed as RMG factories. They are designed as commercial buildings and rented out.

Factory buildings are designed with a higher factor of safety than commercial buildings. Generally, commercial buildings are designed with a factor of safety of 2. Garment factory buildings are designed with factor of safety between 3 to 5.

The ‘live loads’ (weight of moving/moveable objects) of storage areas/warehouses are designed with due consideration. The live load of such areas may be up to 5 times more than that of ordinary office buildings. The machines also produce vibrations which are taken into consideration.

Fire safety: The garments industry is labour extensive. Provisions are made for emergency egress in case of fire or earthquake. Emergency routes and especially stairs are of crucial importance given the fact that the raw materials are highly flammable.

Electrical safety: The electrical systems are designed to adjust to the changing requirements of the production floor. Properly designed electrical systems and proper components are crucial to prevent failure which may lead to fire hazards.

Air quality: For RMG factories, large floor plates enhance flow of production and provide flexibility required to allow for changes in machine layouts necessary for different types of apparel. But buildings with large floor plates, wider than 60 feet deep, are not easy to ventilate using natural means. Indoor air quality is often compromised in such factories. Fans and vents are a must in such situation. This poses significant long term health risks.

Administrative systems: Role of the government
As for Rana Plaza, the government has failed to ensure that the building owners adhere to the approved plans. The local municipality has little power to ensure that the influential elite of the area stick to them. This is true to almost all planning / permission agencies from the capital to the suburbs.

The dearth of competent town planners/code enforcers/ inspectors all add to the nexus of undue politicking and corruption. The rescue efforts also show the complete inadequacy of the disaster management agencies. The efforts of the common people show us once again who the real heroes are.

Administrative systems: Role of the building owners and factory management
The workers were forced to work on that fatal day despite the cracks which appeared on some columns on the preceding day. The culture of asymmetric impunity prevailed. After the building collapsed the owner was rescued by the local lawmaker himself.

The catastrophes of Spectrum, Phoenix, Tazreen have a common thread: the blanket impunity of the management.

What makes the Rana Plaza tragedy more disturbing is that its owner felt that he could get away with whatever he liked as he is an active member of the ruling party and the fact that in the recent past the owners of Spectrum, Phoenix or Tazreen simply got away with man slaughter.

The owners association of the prized $13 billion industry, the BGMEA also act with almost similar impunity of the owners of the buildings which failed. The workers simply do not have a voice. Bangladesh is the poster child world of Wal-Mart-economics.

Ensuring factory safety in this context is not an easy task. Yet it must be remembered that the situation in developed countries were essentially the same in the early phases of mass industrialisation.

The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory at New York in 1911 essentially bore the same hallmarks of the Tazreen fire. However what made a difference over the next decade was the activism of the civil society, well intentioned reformist lawmakers, politicians, human rights activists, journalists etc.

The situation in Bangladesh is compounded by the fatalistic nature of the simple minded masses, all too convenient for the ruling elite and owners.

But all is conspicuously not well now. The system is crushing under its own weight. This is not business as usual. This industry is bursting at its seams with dissent. The goose with the golden eggs appears to be quite ill.

This writer would like to place some suggestions which might help to bring some change.

There should be a body comprised of workers and owners and BGMEA to ensure safety in each factory to monitor situations, perform fire safety drills and evacuation procedures once a month in the presence of responsible agencies.

Make all building permits, fire permits, factory permits with plans available online on the agency websites and in the building for public display so all stakeholders especially the users and tenants may see the original number of stories, intended purposed road widths, setbacks, fire exits etc.

Such transparency will ensure accountability of all parties. The general public may be shown how to understand measured technical drawings by students of engineering and architecture.

Engineers and architects, especially safety experts, must voluntarily check the fire safety and structural integrity in the post construction phase of buildings which were not designed as factories. Equipment for testing structural integrity in the post construction phase is available at BUET and PWD. Such testing equipment may also be provided by the professional trade bodies.

The government planning agencies must devise plans to shift the bulk of the industry into designated industrial zones.

The success of any such measure will depend on how far public awareness and a sense of collective justice challenge the prevailing culture of asymmetric impunity. And in terms of the fate of any alternate course, the less discussed the better.

The writer is an Architect and Assistant Professor at the Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology.
E-mail: sujaulkhan1971@gmail.com