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Analysis of "Sitting on a Bomb": Bangladesh didn't learn its fire safety lessons

Image: Reuters Berita 24 English -  A deadly fire at a container depot in Bangladesh has shown that millions of the country's workers a...

Image: Reuters

Berita 24 English -  A deadly fire at a container depot in Bangladesh has shown that millions of the country's workers are still in danger a decade after a series of tragedies in the export-focused garment industry led to a safety revolution.

Since a fire in 2012 and a building collapse in 2013 killed more than 1,200 workers in the garment industry, Bangladesh and the major international clothing retailers that depend on it for supplies have been under a lot of scrutiny. This has helped stop more disasters from happening.

But in other industries, which mostly serve Bangladesh's booming domestic economy and don't pay as much attention to safety, hundreds of people have died in fires in the past few years.

At least 41 people died in a depot fire that started on Saturday and hasn't been put out yet. Chemicals in nearby containers could cause more explosions that could kill people.

Early in 2017, six people died in the last big fire at a clothing factory in Bangladesh. Reuters says that since then, fires in other businesses or factories that made everything from fans to fruit juices have killed at least 200 people and hurt many more.

Jewel Das, general secretary of the Bangladesh Association of Fire Consultants, which works with the government on fire audits, said, "The garments industry is safer than other industries because there is an international monitoring system for compliance, and if you don't comply, you don't get orders."

"But in other areas, there is neither an international nor a strong national monitoring system."

Many other units are built right on top of their power sources. This is different from established clothing companies, whose power systems, such as diesel generators, are located away from their factories.

Das said, "It's like sitting on a bomb because most fires start in the electrical systems."

He said that in the country of more than 160 million people, many factories that don't make clothes also don't have fire safety measures like keeping flammable materials separate, keeping fire escape routes in good shape, and clearly marking areas where people gather.

Monir Hossain, a high-ranking member of the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence who was at the depot to check on chemicals and fire safety, agreed that oversight was weak in most other industries. He was afraid that even after the latest disaster, not much would change.

"A lot has been done to make the clothing industry safer, but other industries are still not being looked at," said Hossain.

"When something bad happens, there are investigations, but we all forget about that after a while. Then something else happens."

Even the most basic fire safety measures were not in place at the container depot, he said. He said there were only a few fire extinguishers at a place where clothes, chemicals, and other things were kept.


In 2012, a fire at Tazreen Fashions, which made clothes for Walmart Inc. and Sears Holdings, killed 112 workers and brought the world's attention to Bangladesh's dangerous factory conditions.

A year after the disaster, the eight-story Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing 1,135 garment workers and making people all over the world angry about the price of cheap clothes.

This made global retailers, foreign governments, and international organizations like the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC) take action to help improve safety and working conditions in the world's second-largest garments industry.

The IFC said it had set up a five-year, $40 million credit facility for local banks to help garment factories and other factories in the same industry meet new standards for building, electrical, and fire safety.

No similar plans are in place for other industries that have sprung up because the economy has grown much faster in the last ten years than in most other countries.

The International Labour Organization said it was working with Bangladesh's fire, factory, and other departments to improve safety across the economy.

"The lessons learned from the clothing industry should be used to target interventions in other industries based on health and safety risks," it said.

"Bangladesh needs a good national framework for business and industrial safety, as well as a system for training and enforcement."

Ali Ahmed Khan, who was the head of the fire department until a few years ago, said that if Bangladesh wants to stop deadly fires from happening again, it needs to focus on the small and medium-sized industries.

He said that industries like leather goods, pharmaceuticals, and plastic goods were increasing their exports but were not fully following fire safety rules.

"People won't do what you want unless you force them to," he said.

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