Factories do not comply with 60pc of ‘fire safety’ rules

Fire at Hashem Foods Ltd in Narayanganj on 8 JulyFile Photo

A survey of Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment (DIFE) has revealed a disturbing image as it says the factories in most cases do not follow 60 per cent of the rules required to minimise the risk of fires.

DIFE deduced this after inspecting 300 factories which further revealed that each of the factories lack on an average 50 per cent of fire safety arrangements. At least 10 to 15 per cent of the factories have structural flaws.

DIFE officials said, there are 67 types of risk factors for fire in a factory in its checklist. Besides, there are 74 electrical, 7 structural and 18 other risk factors enlisted. The checklist has been prepared following the existing rules and regulations in the country.

The survey is being conducted under a project called Preliminary Risk Assessment of selected garment, plastics and chemical factories. A total of 1,101 factories are to be assessed for risk in this project. After inspecting 300 of these factories, this tendency of not following the rules was found initially.

The inspection has brought the issue of safety risks in the factory to the fore, said Syed Abul Ehsan, director of the project and joint inspector general (administration) of the department and Abdul Mumin, assistant inspector general (safety) of the department.

Abdul Mumin told Prothom Alo, “Fire alarm should automatically be activated if there is a fire in the factory. Many factories do not have a fire alarm system. The factories do not have the equipment and gear to put out the blaze immediately after a fire breaks out.”

In many cases, there is no alternative stairway for workers to get out, he added.

According to DIFE, there are about 61,769 factories in the country in various sectors including readymade garments, plastics, chemicals and food processing. Officials say measures must be taken to ensure that if a floor of a factory catches fire it does not spread throughout the building. Combustible device or chemical in a factory building may create a risk of fire and put the workers at risk. So chemical storage and workers’ area should be separated through a fire prevention system. There are many more such rules in the prevailing law of the country.

Abdul Mumin said the fire could not have spread from one floor to another if the fire safety system at Hashem Foods Limited in Rupganj, Narayanganj was efficient.

A fire at Hashem Foods on Thursday killed 52 people. The bodies of 49 people were found in one of the rooms. The fire started from the ground floor of a six-storey building of Hashem Foods factory, people said. Later it spread to all six floors.

Officials from the Fire Service and Civil Defence inspected the burning building and said there was no fire alarm system. Smoke detectors were also not found. Besides, there was no emergency exit for the workers to get out.

Who will enforce the rules?

After the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, the Directorate of Inspections for Factory and Establishment was upgraded to a department in 2014. Its manpower was also increased. The upgradation was done under the pressure of the buyers of garments made in Bangladesh. At present, out of 993 manpower approved by the department, about 400 are working among which 312 are inspectors.

The inspectors of the department follow the 'checklist' and monitor the factory for child labour, flammable materials, adequate staircases, emergency exits, detection and extinguishing in case of fire. But there are allegations that although various irregularities are detected during the inspections, there are less cases of taking punitive measures.

According to an inspection report last December, inspectors of the organisation visited 2,780 factories that month. They found 4,488 irregularities at the time. According to the report, the owners are not sincere in achieving compliance or overall quality. The follow-up report is not implemented. They have been given notice to implement the labour law.

DIFE officials say they have to file a lawsuit in a labour court to take disciplinary action. At one hand, the cases consume a lot of time, while there is pressure to meet the inspection targets. Again, after so much trouble, no significant punishment can be enforced. According to the law, the inspector has the authority to issue maximum penalty of Tk 25,000.

Brigadier General (retired) Ali Ahmed Khan, former director general of the Fire Service and Civil Defence Department, told Prothom Alo that now the concerned agencies of the government only issue certificates.

“They do not monitor strictly or carry out regular inspections,” he added.

He said, “Safety measures in the garment factories has improved a lot. It did not happen in other factories because, the government did not put pressure on other factories in that way.”

'Urgent action needed'

Meanwhile, labour experts say that such a lengthy checklist is drawn up to ensure best standards, that in actuality much is left to be done. Given the reality of the country, more emphasis should be given to ensure the basic issues in the field of safety and labour rights in the factory.

Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, former executive director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), said DIFE’s long 'checklist' for inspecting factories was unnecessary. According to the labour rules, they just have to follow the small 'checklist'. He added that a magistrate should be appointed to inspect the factory so that immediate disciplinary action can be taken against the irregularities. “If a magistrate can be appointed in the environment department, why not in the factory inspection department?” he added.

* This report, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat