Almost two years after Rana Plaza, the commitment to factory safety in Bangladesh has not lost steam.
This story first appeared in the April 20, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
On the contrary, it seems to be picking up momentum under the direction of Mark Chubb, a fire-safety expert who moved to Dhaka from Seattle to take up a new position as safety officer for the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
A certified chief fire officer who has dealt with situations in fire safety and emergency management for more than three decades, Chubb is expected to bring greater strength to the process of ensuring factory safety. Efforts for worker and building safety have been an important focus in Bangladesh after the collapse of Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013, which cost 1,133 workers their lives.
The Alliance represents a group of North American apparel brands and retailers, including Gap Inc., J.C. Penney Co., Kohl’s Corp., Target Corp., VF Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter of apparel in the world, after China, with exports of $24.5 billion in the sector last year.
Chubb has a clear view of the work ahead.
“I have characterized the challenges I have seen here into two buckets, if you will,” he said. “One bucket are challenges that are unique to or endemic to Bangladesh, and to that end they may be typical of any developing country.”
He explained that the other bucket involved aspects more endemic to fire and building safety in general, including the developed world.
“These are very familiar problems for people who work with building codes and work with engineering problems in the United states or anywhere in Europe,” Chubb said.
In the first basket — factors special to Bangladesh — are issues such as poor enforcement of building-safety standards in past years resulting in unfortunate conditions for many buildings, many of which are in need of attention, and the limits that the existing infrastructure imposes.
“This also limits where we can get,” Chubb said. “The infrastructure in Bangladesh will only support certain kinds of intervention or intervention that can only take things to a certain level because of certain endemic situations. For example, if we are successful in enclosing staircases and installing sprinklers and fire alarms to improve fire and building safety in Bangladesh, we are still going to have challenges in terms of the public space.”
He explained that in the U.S. and Europe there were certain assumptions of the quality of public space, the width of streets, the degree to which buildings in an urban landscape can be discharged, along with a public right of way that is protected, open, accessible and wide enough for people to discharge freely in any direction.
“That’s clearly not the case in Bangladesh,” Chubb said. “Many of the buildings are in very densely populated urban areas where street widths are inadequate, where adjacent land uses encroach right on the public way and are often right next to the building and the ability of people to discharge freely once they come out at the ground level is going to be a challenge. That’s not a challenge that we would have routinely expected or encountered in the U.S. and Europe. So even if we increase the level of fire and building safety, we’re going to have a challenge getting people out of the building.”
Another example he cited is related to sprinkler systems, where the U.S. and Europe public water systems can usually supply ample water to support them.
Similarly, for fire alarms, lighting and other emergency equipment, there is a steady supply of electricity that is usually available.
“In most of the Bangladesh factories, the water supply required for fire protection and electrical systems are both provided on site,” Chubb said. “There are large cisterns, there are generators, and that kind of equipment introduces a level of complexity again that is somewhat unique to Bangladesh.”
Interpreting regulatory framework into a practical situation is not new to Chubb, who spent considerable time in the early part of his career developing building codes in the U.S. and helping local officials interpret and apply them consistently.
“In an average eight-hour day, I would spend six hours a day on the phone explaining regulations,” he said. “So it’s not at all unusual for those regulatory requirements to be difficult to interpret and apply on a regular basis. In some ways, what we’re seeing in Bangladesh is very typical. But we just didn’t encounter the urban intensity we have in Dhaka and Chittagong.”
The urban intensity can change the same rules, and call for more ingenuity in application and in an emergency.
“In the end, we are trying to apply standards that were developed elsewhere in the world to situations that are very different because of the speed with which Dhaka and Bangladesh have developed, and the density of urban population,” he said.
Worker training continues to be an important agenda item.
“One of my objectives is to begin working with partners with civil defence and other government agencies to help identify how we can help support their training needs and try to build some institutions in the country that will enable us to transfer lessons from the remediation program to those agencies where they can carry on successfully,” he said.
The worker training will be expanded along with an assessment of how well earlier training interventions have worked. Chubb observed that this would probably be extended to training in other sectors to ensure the sustainability of the remediation efforts.
In Bangladesh, as the teams from the Alliance work with other stakeholders, including the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a compendium of more than 180 retailers and brands, mostly European, along with the Bangladesh government, factory owners and workers, fire and safety issues need more than technical information. With his background in engineering and public policy, much of Chubb’s work has involved issues related to the transfer of technical information or standards into a political and legal context, a skill that should help negotiate the complexities of the present system.
Chubb said that since a large part of the technical staff with which he would be working had been engaged from the engineering community and the technical community in the garment sector in Bangladesh, it would be easier to ensure that standards were not imposed from outside, but rather work toward helping the country raise the standard that it has really identified and tried to establish.
The commitment to make these changes, along with a realism of the economic challenges associated with it, would help work these out, along with the social and technical challenges, he said.
“In other words, we know it’s going to take time to improve fire-safety measures,” Chubb added. “In the interim, we want to make sure the emphasis and the understanding on how to prevent fire, how to manage escape, how to empower workers to raise and contain health hazards, are occurring first and foremost. I don’t want to minimize any of the unique challenges that Bangladesh or Dhaka or the garment sector face, but I want to reassure them that because so much of the problem is common to other places, it is easily overcome. We just have to be patient and diligent.”