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Saturday, June 28, 2008
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Fire safety in garments industry: Design matters

"Phenomenal growth of garment exports to Europe and America continent over the last one decade from Bangladesh has provided a unique opportunity for further industrialization, income and employment generation and diversification of the industrial sub-sector. -Dr. M. F. Haque

The age of garments industries in our country has not yet reached 30 years, but already 76 percent of Bangladesh's foreign income is earned by this sector. The sad part is that the welfare of the garments factory workers is still unattended. For a poor country like us, garments factories brought a ray of glaring hope to its economy and also to its unemployment problem. It actually proved to be a blooming industry for Bangladesh because a huge number of labourers are available at a very cheap price. Undoubtedly the workers have also benefited from this sector, as they have something to eat and a place to live.

Garments factories are helping much to solve our unemployment problem. At the same time it is creating new problems like environmental pollution, degraded lifestyle of workers, settlement problems, health problems, etc. Here, we shall discuss about the fire accidents in garments factories, problems that are created by unplanned work environment, disorganized workers, poor building design, and largely due to the lack of concern of factory-owners on this issue.

Bangladesh has entered into the world market through the products of our garments factories which are made by poor Bangladeshis of whom majority are women. But this light of prosperity is darkened when we cannot guarantee our workers' safety and security. Workers are less secure as monetary remunerations are never beyond just enough, sometimes even less. They are less safe as anytime accidents can cause them disability or even loss of lives. In most cases their lives are endangered by risk of fire. They lack the safety, especially, safety from fire. Low salary and fewer benefits will affect these workers' daily life but fire incidents threaten their lives. Regretfully, almost all the accidents that have happened over the years or at least the loss of lives could have been avoided if only a few cautionary measures were taken by the concerned and relevant authority. In fact, workers' lives are apparently so insignificant that the death of garment workers is soon forgotten, until of course the next tragedy.

Garments and fire are closely related to each other in Bangladesh. Outbreaks of fire in garments factories have become acceptable. We learn some lessons after a disaster, and most often forget about them. People had been dying but authorities were not that much concerned until overseas buyers took exception to the large number of deaths and injuries. It is a matter of great shame that we had to be warned by the importers about the safety concern for our workers.

Despite improvements in the area over the past decade, even today many a garments factory owners are found paying minimum attention to the issue of fire safety. Even if fire fighting equipments are installed in a factory, albeit arbitrarily, none can ensure that they will not malfunction at the time of emergency.

More importantly factory management are found to be totally unaware of the need and importance of the means of escape, the route to escape from the affected area to a place of safety, or a place of refuge in case of fire. Most of the deaths and injuries are caused by locked and/or inadequate means of escape in such factories.

Fire hazards in garments industry: Case studies
* 91 killed in a fire in KTS textile mill, Chittagong, February 23, 2006. At least 500 workers were inside the mill when the fire broke out. Most of the survivors had to jump from windows as the only exit from the factory was reportedly locked when the fire broke out late on a Thursday night. No representatives of the KTS Textile Mills were available for comment. Most of the victims were women, trapped by the flames or suffocated from smoke inhalation. The fire might have been caused by an electrical short circuit. The explosion of a boiler escalated the blaze. The fire had spread quickly through the building because of stacks of yarn piled up on the floors.

* On May 3rd 2004, nine women were trampled to death and 50 others injured when they ran for their lives after a false fire alarm at Misco Super Market, Dhaka. 3,000 to 5,000 workers from five garment factories jam-packed in the Misco Supermarket complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh While some of the workers exited through the fire escapes, most workers took the main stairway to the front gate of the building, where they found the gate locked

* On the morning of August 8, 2001, in Dhaka's Mirpur area. At 9 am, a worker at Mico Sweater Ltd., on the seventh floor of the building, sounded the alarm after seeing flames shooting from the electric circuit board. Workers from five different units converged on the stairs, but found the single exit locked and the security guard absent. In the resulting stampede, twenty four workers died and over one hundred were injured.

* March, 2006, three female workers were killed and 50 were injured in the Saiem Fashion Ltd fire and the subsequent stampede to escape the burning building. The only exit to the factory was deliberately blocked by boxes

* 26 killed in a fire in a garments fire in Kafrul, August 01, 2001

* On 6 March, 2006, 3 more garment workers were killed in a stampede from a fire panic at a Gazipur garment factory, near Dhaka.

* A fire occurred on November 25, 2000at the Chowdhury Knitwear and Garments Ltd factory in Narsinghdi. Some 600 workers who were working at the time surged towards the single narrow staircase, but found both the main gate and the emergency gates locked. Most of the 46 victims died of suffocation or were crushed to death in the panic.

Since 1990, over 350 workers have died and some 1500 injured in fire-related incidents in garments factories in Bangladesh, alarming figures indeed. Till 2000, there were more than hundred fires in factories in Bangladesh. More than 5000 workers were injured in these fires and 246 workers were killed.

These deaths and injuries were the result of violation of fire safety and building codes.

The cause of fire can be electric short circuit, faulty electrical wirings, smoking materials, boiler explosion, kitchen stove, carelessness, fire from existing structures, and so on. But the cause of death is usually not the fire directly. Rather people have died due to stampede, locked exits, inadequate number of stairs, deliberately blocked pathways, smoke and suffocation; in short, their inability to escape.

Present scenario: Sign of improvement?
If we analyse the past incidents and accidents, some terrible facts are revealed. In most cases, people died because of stampede. Why was the situation for a stampede created? Firstly, workers are not trained (practice of fire drill). Secondly, often the main gate is found locked. Finding the gate locked, workers try to run back up the stairs and run into others coming downstairs. This clash results into panic, an inevitable stampede, trampling, suffocation and death. False fire alarms, sparking panic among untrained workers, are sometimes a cause for death. How tragic is this situation where people die of only panic and no fire!

A recent survey of some garments factories by this author in an industrial area in Dhaka found that factory owners are now much more concerned about fire safety in their factories. At first glance, anyone will agree that they are fully satisfactory in terms of fire safety. Three out of five garments factories were found designed by architects.

All the factories ensured proper installation, arrangements and training of the safety equipments such as fire alarm, smoke alarm, fire extinguishers, water supply system etc. But these installations, fire signage and fire drills are not enough in a sense that if, planning of the building is not proper; it can lead to severe tragedy. Plan layout is greatly responsible for the deaths of workers while means of escape comes into question. Faulty route of escape often is probably the main cause of death in factories of our country. Previous examples shows that in most cases false fire alarms and locked gates make people nervous and they died of stampede.

In short, all the surveyed garments fulfil the requirement of emergency exit. It is provided in all the cases, signage is present and fire fighting equipments are up to date, a departure from the past. Even fire drill is held once in a month.

The situation has improved a lot, but yet a worked-out escape route is still difficult to find. Here are some of the reasons:

* Routes are blocked by storage materials

* Machine layout is often staggered

* Lack of signage for escape route

* No provision for emergency lighting

* Doors, opening along escape routes, are not fire resistant.

* Doors are not self-closing and often do not open along the direction of escape.

* Adequate doors as well as adequate staircases are not provided to aid quick exit

* Fire exit or emergency staircase lacks proper maintenance

* Lack of proper exit route to reach the place of safety

* Parked vehicles, goods and rubbish on the outside of the building obstruct exits to the open air

* Fire in a Bangladesh factory is likely to spread quickly because the principle of compartmentalization is practised

* Lack of awareness among the workers and the owners

Planning considerations
Architects are in some cases responsible for the fire accidents. The location of staircases, the location of entry and exit, route to the staircases, and machine arrangement are in the domain of the architect's responsibility. Some basic considerations are required for a good design by the architects while designing any factory building:

* Measures should be taken to lessen the possibilities of fire- incident

* In the event of fire, facilities to escape safely, quickly and unaided to a place to safety or a place of refuge

* Containment of fire within the building

* Reduce the chances of fire spreading to adjoining buildings

Staircases:
In multi-storied buildings, staircases are the means of escape during any fire. The architect should provide alternate staircases to be used in case one staircase is under fire. There is a misconception that two staircases are enough for any buildings. But it is not logical. Staircases should be provided according to size of the factory, the area and the number of people working. The location of staircases is also another important matter. Alternate staircases should be located as far as possible from each other. Also, merely providing appropriate number of staircases in proper location is not again enough; the staircases should be protected by fire-door and fire-resistant materials.

The distance between alternate staircases or the travel distance of a worker from his work station to a place of safety should be maximum 30 meters (based on the travel distance of an average person in case of energy) and an escapee worker must find a place of safety (a refuge cell or a protected staircase) within 2.5 minute. But most of garments industries are found to be faulty on this count. In some cases, alternate staircase is provided at perfect distance. But those are again faulty as they are not fire-protected staircases.

Route to staircases:
While staircases are the utmost important for designing escape route for multi-storied garments factories, route to the staircases is also important. Although the staircases may be protected from fire, if the workers cannot find their way out to safety then all will be in vain. Protected route has the same importance as protected staircase. Route to staircase can be corridors or a ramp. If it is a ramp then it must have a slope of 1:10 and it must be non-slip since the workers will rush toward the staircase to reach the place of safety. This escape route should be provided with emergency lighting, should be of the same width as the exit door, and should be direct and without any obstruction. Often storage items and furniture block the route which can turn out to be crucial should people want to escape when a fire breaks out.

Congested working place can also hamper escape. Arrangement of machineries should not become an obstruction for running away from fire. There should be regular fire drills to make the workers trained to face a fire and prevent any panic from starting. Workers, most of whom are women, become panic-stricken and start running to and fro most often only on hearing about a fire and thus contribute to causing an ill-fated stampede.

We need to remember that when there is a fire, the first thing one should do is to run away from it. And this is what everyone does in such a situation. But the situation become dangerous and tragic when the escape doorways and gates are found locked.

Precautionary measures to be adopted (not exhaustive):
* Building should be constructed with fire resisting materials

* Adequate exits and proper escape routes should be designed

* Protection against fire and smoke should be ensured

* Electrical wiring must be properly designed, installed and maintained

* Escape routes should be lighted at all times, kept clear, be indicated by signs

* Regular fire drills should be held

* Doors should be protected and should open along the direction of escape

* Doors should not open on the steps and sufficient space in the landing should be provided.

* Smoke/Fire alarm systems must be installed

* Adequate number of extinguishers should be provided

* Prior relationship with local Fire services should be established

Safety issues: Outside the factory building
Safety issues are related to the outside conditions also. In our country, buildings are so closely spaced that if one building accidentally catches fire, it is possible that the building beside the affected one may also catch fire. Again fire fighters face many problems due to this inadequate setback between buildings.

Garments factories of Bangladesh are yet to be satisfactory in terms of fire safety. There should be a national strategy to raise awareness among the common mass and specially the workers before tragedy strikes again. Another important factor is awareness should also be raised among planners, architects, engineers and constructors. If some simple factors are considered and some suitable measures are adopted, risk of life and property can be minimized to a great extent.

The author is a student of the Masters programme at the Department of Architecture, BUET and Lecturer at SMUCT, Dhaka.

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