Brad Loewen, chief safety inspector for the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh

Brad Loewen, chief safety inspector for the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh

As safety inspections on more than 1,500 garment factories supplying a group of mainly European retailers get underway this week, just-style speaks with Brad Loewen, the top safety official overseeing the effort.

Poor building construction and inadequate fire safety infrastructure are still putting Bangladesh garment factory workers at risk, according to initial inspections led by Brad Loewen, chief safety inspector for the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

Loewen, a Canadian, is leading the team that will inspect 1,500 factories this year - with work due to begin this week - identifying ways that brands and factory owners can improve workplace safety in an industry plagued with factory fires and collapses.

"I think it's fairly clear that the fire concerns arise out of many, many fires that have happened in garment factories in Bangladesh, and throughout the world...and then also [the April 2013 collapse of] Rana Plaza obviously brought to the fore structural safety concerns," he told just-style.

The five-year Accord is a legally binding agreement to improve factory safety between international and Bangladesh labour organisations, and more than 140 apparel companies from 19 countries sourcing from Bangladesh, such as Marks & Spencer, Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), Benetton and C&A.

Signatory firms fund the Accord's activities with contributions based on the individual company's volume of sourcing from Bangladesh relative to the annual volume of the other companies.

Loewen notes the Accord has a budget of about US$9m to cover administrative costs including inspections, worker training, and a complaints hotline.

The brands are committed under the Accord to help fund factory remediation costs, although it does also allow for overseas companies to tap government assistance, loans, donor support and finance from joint investment deals.

Pilot inspections
Since arriving on 12 December, Loewen has met with signatory brands, Bangladesh government officials, and factory owner associations, and conducted pilot inspections of 10 factories.

His team inspects three key areas of concern for the industry: fire protection; electrical hazards and safety; and the structural integrity of factory buildings.

The Accord's standards are largely based on Bangladesh's building codes with some additional requirements (such as fire sprinkler systems in buildings higher than 23 metres), developed in consultation with various labour organisations.

Key issues so far involve buildings constructed differently than the originally approved design, and which fail to meet the Bangladesh National Building Code, says Loewen.

Under the Accord, owners of factories where inspectors found construction was weaker than the original design must obtain a more in-depth structural survey.

In critical cases, factories might need to be evacuated entirely - though Loewen notes none of the 10 buildings checked thus far were so severely compromised.

Factories checked in his pilot assessments also often had unsafe fire exit routes, such as stairwells whose designs actually helped fire to spread. "If these buildings had been built to those [national] codes, I don't think we would be here," he explains.

Big impact
Loewen currently runs a staff of five people (four in Bangladesh and one at the Accord foundation's Amsterdam headquarters), but engineering inspectors have been hired from around the world to conduct the planned full inspections of the 1,500 factories.

During the next seven months of inspections, the Accord will also hire about 75 to 80 staff to help factories with the follow-up in establishing new systems such as health and safety committees in factories.

As chief inspector, Loewen has complete autonomy in the inspection process and is responsible for selecting the staff, which is then approved by the Accord's steering committee.

Loewen points out that his autonomy is a critical aspect of the job that ensures unbiased assessment of the buildings.

In taking the job, "I was just excited about the challenge of being able to have such a big impact," he said.

His experience in fire safety and inspection in Canada as Winnipeg city's administrator of commercial plan examinations and inspections, as well as similar work at provincial and federal government levels, has prepared him well for this job.

For more specialist knowledge of the apparel industry, he turns to experienced Accord staff members and steering committee members.