The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building has spurred global efforts to improve factory safety.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building has spurred global efforts to improve factory safety.

First findings from inspections at ten garment factories used by members of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh have highlighted widespread fire, electrical safety and potential structural problems. But none are on a par with those that caused the collapse of the Rana Plaza building last April - and the assessments are on track for completion in September.

So far, the most serious concerns have seen two factories partially shuttered in the last week or so over structural concerns, but every effort was made to ensure that production could continue, albeit at a reduced capacity.

In one of the factories, four of the eight floors had to be entirely evacuated of all people and equipment, all the storage had to be removed and all the water tanks on the roof had to be emptied in order to lighten the building.

"There's always been a way of finding a compromise that allows a reduced operation to continue," explains Brad Loewen, chief safety inspector for the Accord, which has just released its first reports from a pilot assessment of factory conditions.

Results are being officially published on the Accord website on Tuesday (12 March), but advance details shared in a conference call today indicate the magnitude of the task facing the team working to an end of August deadline to inspect the 1,500 factories used by more than 150 mainly European retailers and brands who have signed the Accord.

Loewen also hinted that Bangladeshi garment workers' lives are still at risk from poor building construction and inadequate fire safety infrastructure.

Electrical issues are often the biggest source of fire, he explained, while worker protection and safety hinges on things like fire doors and sprinkler systems, "and everything we're finding is directly related to that."

Common findings so far include jumbles of unsupported and unidentified electrical wires and cables, exit stairs not separated from work areas by fire doors, and bowing ceiling beams due to the weight of goods stored above.

Other issues include disparities between the building plans and "the actual building that we see in front of us, which does not match the construction drawing," explains Brad Loewen, chief safety inspector for the Accord. "We need to have drawings prepared for the building as it stands," he adds.

A number of factories also need to have a structural loading plan prepared, showing where loads can be placed and their amount.

Other issues include the need for unlockable gates on exits, fire doors required on exits, automatic sprinkler systems, automatic fire alarm upgrades; and "all the factories had electrical issues at one level or another."

Worst-case scenario
However, Loewen believes the initial assessment of conditions in the industry is a worst-case scenario, since the factories selected for priority inspections are those deemed to be at the highest risk - such as those in multi-factory buildings with more than five storeys, as well as older buildings.

"We are starting with the high rise factories and most risky factories, so there will tend to be a higher number of problematic factories early on," he explains. "Going on, there will be less and less of them as we get into lower buildings and newer buildings."

The timeline for inspections is "aggressive, but do-able," he believes, adding: "We're seeing results that indicate it should be possible."

While the results just released relate to inspections performed on ten factories last November and December, so far, 80 inspections have been completed - and by the end of March this will have risen to 250. From then until September, 13 teams of fire, electrical and structural engineers will conduct 250 inspections a month.

There are obviously limits to what can be achieved in the one-day review allocated for each factory - for example, assumptions on concrete strength - but this "does give a sense of structural concerns that need to be followed up on."

Loewen also suggests the fixes for structural repairs are not necessarily expensive. "It's almost always an issue of the columns that are supporting the building, the columns have either been underbuilt, not installed as designed, and also buildings are added to, built higher than they were designed or intended.

"So the compound effect of the building columns being weaker than they were originally designed and [to] then have more storeys built on top, just makes [the] columns very suspect to the problems that we know can happen.

"To strengthen those columns is quite possible by introducing steel and different fixes, the building can be strengthened; that's a do-able fix."

The ten factories that were inspected are: Alif Garments, Anlima Textile, Big Boss Corp, Dragon Sweater, The Fashion Island, Grameen Knitwear, Majumder Fashions, Redpoint Jackets, Rio Fashion Wear, and Viyellatex.

Important milestone
"The publication of these reports is an important milestone in the Accord's progress and a demonstration of our commitment to transparency but it is only really the beginning of our work," said Alan Roberts, the Bangladesh Accord Foundation's executive director of international operations.

There is a big task ahead of the inspection teams and the Accord will be working hard with signatory brands, union signatories, workers at the factories and the factory owners themselves to see that the actions the inspections identify are undertaken."

The five-year Accord is a legally binding agreement signed last May in response to the Rana Plaza factory building collapse on 24 April, which resulted in the deaths of 1,133 workers.

Its goal is to improve factory safety, and is supported by more than 150 apparel companies from 19 countries sourcing from Bangladesh, such as Marks & Spencer, Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), Benetton and C&A.

The signatories have disclosed all factories they source from in Bangladesh, and are committed to working with factory owners to ensure that sufficient funds are available to pay for renovations and other safety improvements.

They are also bound to continue sourcing from Bangladesh for at least the five-year period of the Accord.

Click here for a full list of companies that have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.