Garment workers at Sparrow Apparels Limited garment factory in the Gazipur area of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

A global nonprofit fire protection association found in a new report assessing 14 garment factories in Bangladesh that the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety has raised awareness and made progress on electrical fire and life safety, but concluded that more work needs to be done.

The National Fire Protection Association, in collaboration with the University of Maryland, was invited by the Alliance to conduct an independent review of 14 factories that its members use in Bangladesh.

The Alliance, composed of 28 North American brands and retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., J.C. Penney Co. and VF Corp. was launched in the aftermath of the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza in April 2013, in which 1,133 workers lost their lives.

A second industry initiative known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, comprised primarily of European companies, was also formed and both consortia have made a five-year commitment to inspect and remediate thousands of garment factories that companies use in Bangladesh. Labor and human rights groups have kept a close eye on those initiatives that have made progress in inspecting more than 2,500 factories combined and improving inadequate fire, electrical and safety conditions in Bangladesh’s apparel industry.

In the new assessment, officials from NFPA, UMD and the Alliance reviewed fire and building safety standards, protocols, inspection procedures and training programs in a sample of 14 of the estimated 650 garment factories  used by Alliance members.

“The Alliance has been working hard to meet its goal to create a safe environment for workers in Bangladesh’s factories and its results-oriented process has helped make progress within the industry,” said Don Bliss, NFPA’s vice president of field operations.

The assessment team conducted a fact-finding trip to Dhaka in August. The Alliance factories that were assessed include Lenny Apparels Ltd., Hopyic, FCI BD Ltd., DNV Clothing Ltd., Kwun Tong Apparels Ltd., Evince Factory, Stylecraft Ltd., Stoffatex Fashions Ltd., Cortz Apparels Ltd., AKH Shirts Ltd., Ashiana Garments Ltd., ACS Textiles, Marina Apparels Ltd. and That’s It Sportswear Ltd. Ha-Meem.

“The objective of the Alliance is to establish a minimum level of safety for factories, conduct safety assessments of all factories that source to their members, identify remediation necessary to meet the established minimum standard of safety and implement the remediation,” NFPA said in its 38-page assessment report. “In addition, the Alliance is providing safety training to workers and management. Based on the efforts undertaken by the Alliance, it is clear that the Alliance staff in Bangladesh and abroad is working hard to complete the identified tasks.”

NFPA identified and made short- and long-term recommendations for the Alliance and the Bangladeshi government to improve fire safety in the garment industry and build more capacity for inspections.

“Safety engineering capacity is one obstacle the Alliance must overcome in order to meet the demand within the five-year, self-imposed time frame,” the report said.

Officials found that while all factories sourcing for the Alliance had undergone their initial inspections and remediation plans were being developed, the plans were often returned by the Alliance for noncompliance.

“As a result, the Alliance plan review process has slowed, which in turn has slowed down the implementation of remediation,” the report said. “This could be improved by hiring professional assistance from trained and qualified consultants to complete the plan review backlog or increase the number of trained and qualified Alliance personnel conducting plan review services.”

Other critical recommendations included having the Alliance provide early and ongoing inspections during remediation to “help mitigate poor compliance” with reviewed plans and establishing criteria for the electrical, fire and life safety assessments of factories that could escalate remediation and may lead to the suspension of operations.

“In some cases, factories may be imminently dangerous without effective recourse and money spent toward remediation may be better spent on factory relocation,” the report said. “The most important aspect of the criteria is whether it is reasonable to expect occupants to successfully egress from a building that is undergoing a life-threatening event.”

Ellen Tauscher, independent chairwoman of the Alliance, said, “We believe that improving worker safety in Bangladesh’s factories is a moral imperative, and we’ve made great progress the last three years in improving factory safety and empowering workers — leading to a dramatic reduction in the number of fires and fire-related deaths in factories from 2012 to 2015.”

She also noted that NFPA and UMD collaboration and recommendations will help the Alliance “identify additional areas where we can improve our programs.”

“Overall, the Alliance has taken on a huge responsibility to increase the level of safety to workers in factories sourcing to the Alliance brands. A tremendous amount of effort has already occurred and a considerable amount of work is yet to be done. All of this is scheduled within a five-year time frame,” the report concluded. “For the short-term, the work is progressing well and the Alliance is doing a good job to achieve the goal of an increased level of safety. The sustainability of these efforts after the five-year time frame depends on how well these efforts are transferred to other stakeholders.”