by Russ Jowell (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The beginning of 2013 has brought us yet another tragic reminder of why fire safety is so vitally important for garment factories. The incident in question is a fire that broke out on January 26 at the Smart Export Garments factory in Bangladesh that claimed the lives of at least 7 people and injured dozens more. As the investigation gets underway, reports from survivors and eyewitnesses have revealed something disturbing; much of the human toll was due to the ill-preparedness of the factory to deal with a fire. In other words, some, if not all, of the 7 lives that were lost could have been spared if some simple safety measures had been implemented before the fire. What makes this even more frustrating is that headlines about factory ill-preparedness have shown up far too often in similar situations. In 2012 alone, headlines about factories being unprepared to deal with a fire were seen following the November 24 Tazreen Factory in Bangladesh and the September 11 Ali Enterprises fire in Pakistan, both of which claimed over 100 lives each. As other notable incidents have indicated, including a 2010 fire at a factory producing for H&M, a 2006 fire at the KTS Textile Factory in Chittagong, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, the importance of fire preparedness in garment factories cannot be overstated. In many cases it can mean the difference between a close call and a devastating tragedy. The good news is that many highly-effective fire prevention measures are also easy to implement, easy to use, and are highly affordable.
As a social compliance organization, the health and safety of workers is of the utmost importance to WRAP, and we believe it should remain in the forethought of every factory owner and operator. With this in mind, however, we recognize that those who construct and operate these facilities have business demands that need to be met and are responsible for keeping revenues high and costs low. Today we are going to look at how profit is compatable with protection and examine at ways to reduce risk while retaining revenue.
A good basis for this topic is the internationally-practiced 5-Step Risk Assessment Process, which serves as a road map for fire prevention measures and forms the basis of WRAP’s Factory Fire Safety Course. These steps provide guidelines for those charged with implementing preventative measures. They are as follows:
- Identify Fire Hazards
- Identify People at Risk
- Evaluate, Remove, Reduce, and Protect from Risk
- Record, Plan, Inform, Instruct, and Train
The identification of hazards and people at risk is an effective first step to fire prevention. A simple factory walk-through can identify risks that can be easily corrected and find more severe risks that need immediate attention. Some things to be conscious of during this walk include stacks of fabric or other flammable materials near heat sources, power outlets that are being overused, exposed power cables, potential trip hazards along escape routes or high-traffic corridors, the sight or smell of smoke in an area where there should be none, and improperly stored flammable chemicals. This is also an opportunity to examine individual worker stations for potential hazards. Regular observational walks through a factory can greatly increase awareness about fire risks and help begin reducing and/or eliminating them.
This brings us to the next step in the process which is the evaluation and reduction of risk. Walk-throughs are good ways to see the risks, but they are only effective if factory managers maintain a commitment to address them as soon as possible. If problems are spotted, managers should take accountability for them and see that they are fixed or addressed promptly. Factory officials should also maintain situational awareness of any changes to a factory’s environment that may affect fire risk.
Following the assessment of risk, the next step in the process is that of recording, planning, and training. While identifying and minimizing risks are important, it is equally crucial that measures are in place to help deal with a fire should one occur. This includes providing fire suppression equipment, clearly marking emergency exits and the routes to them, and providing sufficient training in the use of both. Let us begin with fire suppression. Fires need heat, fuel, and oxygen to survive and removing any one of these puts the fire out. In most cases, the easiest of these to remove is oxygen and there are several, cost-effective methods that achieve this. Modern fire extinguishers are perhaps the most notable solutions. They come filled with a variety of chemicals designed to smother a fire to death. But there are two other, more commonly available substances that serve as good fire extinguishers. Water or sand stored in fire buckets can provide a low-cost yet highly effective fire suppression solution for most types of fires. Both substances quickly deprive a fire of its oxygen and water has the added benefit of carrying heat away from the fire in the form of steam. It should be noted though that due to its conductivity, water should never be used on an electrical fire. When assembling fire buckets, make sure they are well labelled, easily accessible, and checked periodically for readiness.
Unfortunately, fires do have the potential to spread out of control requiring evacuation of personnel. Even in this scenario, injuries can be minimized with well-planned exits. The purpose of an emergency exit is to provide the occupants of a building a quick and easy way to escape disaster. Finding and using the exit should require minimal effort for anyone inside the building. First and foremost, exits should be easy to see. They should be clearly marked as being an emergency exit and have clear pathways marked to them from any point inside the building. These paths should also be clear of any obstructions or trip hazards. A good practice is to periodically walk the entire path to an exit to be sure it is clear. Finally, an emergency exit door should be easy to use and require only seconds to open, because that may be all the time it takes for a small fire to grow into an explosive inferno. The exit should lead directly outside and provide a clear path away from the building. If theft or intrusion through these exits is of concern, consider installing a panic bar or a door alarm that is triggered whenever the door is opened. It is important to point out, however, that the exit should never be locked under any circumstances!
The final consideration of fire preparedness is training. Proper education is the thread that ties all of the aforementioned concepts together. Workers and management alike should be trained to spot fire hazards quickly and know how to mitigate or eliminate them. Training should also be provided regarding the best practices for minimizing fire hazards during the course of a normal workday. Additionally, employees should be knowledgeable in the operation of any fire suppression equipment as well as how to evacuate should that be required. WRAP’s Fire Safety Course is an ideal forum in which to learn about these topics. Live, interactive demonstrations also provide a crucial hands-on element to the course that gives students a chance to practice fire response techniques.
Loss of life should never been seen as acceptable within the garment industry. As one of our 12 Principles, WRAP remains committed to the belief that all workers should expect a safe and healthy working environment from their employers. With this in mind, we also believe that protection and profits need not be mutually exclusive. Safety and productivity can co-exist inside a factory’s walls without hindering each other.