After 112 people died in the Tazreen Fashions fire, Arup was asked to develop a methodology to assess Bangladeshi factory buildings. George Faller outlines the engineering and cultural challenges Arup faced when implementing the methodology

Numerous fatal fire incidents and some structural failures in ready-made garment (RMG) factory buildings in Bangladesh led to private as well as state-run initiatives to inspect the entire stock of garment factories in that country and rectify the building safety deficiencies.

The RMG sector has become key to the economy of the country in terms of export earnings, employment generation, poverty alleviation and empowering of women. The companies that place the orders are from the main brands we see on the high street, such as H&M, Primark, Inditex (Zara), C&A, Next and Gap.

Accompanying the rapid growth of the industry was a rapid development of the production infrastructure to support this manufacturing. A feature of the construction of the factory buildings was that it was largely unregulated, resulting in a large stock of operational factory buildings, many of which exhibit poor building-safety standards.

The main brands placing orders for garments from Bangladesh all have corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes that they apply to factories from which they source. These CSR programmes are mainly aimed at social issues related to working conditions but are typically light on technical issues.

It was becoming evident to some of the brands, such as Inditex, that the CSR programmes were not achieving safe working conditions for the workers – a fact that was being borne out by the rising number of fatalities due to fire incidents. They realised that they needed more technical expertise to feed into their CSR auditing system to address the fire-safety issue more effectively.

Response to fire-safety issues

A fire in the Tazreen Fashions factory on 24 November 2012, in which 112 workers lost their lives, served as a catalyst for a national response to the fire-safety issue in the factories. Inditex contracted Arup to identify the fire-safety issues in the approximately 250 factories from which that they source in Bangladesh, and to help them apply remedial measures as soon as possible.

Arup Fire developed a fire-safety inspection checklist and spent time in Bangladesh with the social-compliance teams, training them in the application of the checklist for fire-safety inspections and reporting deficiencies.

We were not very far into this process when we realised that all the buildings we were dealing with had similar fire safety deficiencies and that the surveys were indicating endemic, industry-wide deficiencies that needed to be addressed. A different approach was needed to address the situation.

What we had seen from our work with SGS in the factories surveyed for Inditex was that the inherent problems in the vast majority of the buildings were the following, and that for some of the issues identified there was no quick-fix solution:

  • Lockable security gates and shutters on escape routes;
  • No protection of escape stairs, and stairs open to production floors on multi-storey, multi-tenancy buildings;
  • Escape stairs discharging into the middle of production spaces;
  • Battery powered, independent point detectors even in unoccupied areas;
  • Manual alarm activation generally and even for storage areas at lower levels
  • No adequate separation of high fire-risk areas;
  • Unmanaged temporary storage, not separated and often invading escape routes.

Among the issues that could be seen as contributing to the state of the factory buildings were a general lack of a safety culture in Bangladesh, corruption or other vested interests in the garment factories, and a limited technical knowledge about the fire safety code.

All of the above point to the need for a strong building regulatory enforcement framework, and the exact opposite is the case in Bangladesh – the mechanisms for effective enforcement are very weak, and non-existent in some cases.

Faced with this situation, the international brands realised that the assumption in the CSR programmes about the role that the authorities would play in ensuring safety standards in the buildings was flawed. The choice was clear for many major brands; they would either have to invest in closing this gap or cease dealing with those factories.

Establishment of the Accord and the National Initiative

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (the Accord) was signed in May 2013, representing a five-year independent, legally binding agreement between global brands, retailers and trade unions. It was designed to build a safe and healthy RMG industry in Bangladesh. There were originally just over 40 signatories to the Accord, but this number has grown to over 190 now.

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (the Alliance) was another initiative started by a few dozen mainly North American brands and worked towards a similar objective as the Accord.

Arup was appointed as structural and fire-safety technical representatives in a forum arranged to agree minimum safety standards to be used in the inspections and remediation programme by all the initiatives. The standards focused only on major, life-threatening issues, as it was recognised that implementing the full requirements of the code to the factory building stock would amount virtually to shutting down the RMG industry.

The brands represented by the two private-sector initiatives had dealings with represented about 1,500 factories in the case of the Accord and 700 factories for the Alliance. There were an estimated 4,000 RMG factories producing for export in Bangladesh, and the International Labour Organization (ILO) undertook to support the Government in addressing the safety inspections and remedial work on the remaining factories, in what became known as the National Initiative.

The ILO contracted local consultants to carry out the preliminary inspections on the National Initiative factories for fire, structures and electrical safety. Due to our familiarity with the safety programme and experience with factory inspections, it appointed Arup to support the consultants in a capacity building and quality-assurance role.

The role played by the Bangladesh Fire Services and Civil Defence (FSCD) in enforcing fire safety was observed by us during our involvement with factory surveys. FSCD was routinely carrying out inspections of all the listed factories, but would concentrate mainly on firefighting equipment and procedures; there was little appreciation for architectural and layout requirements for fire safety.

Their well-intentioned efforts turned out to be counterproductive to ensuring good fire safety practice in some areas:

  • Due to the high incident of fires caused by electrical faults, FSCD instructed all factories to remove all electrical lighting in storage areas;
  • An instruction was given to all factories to clear at least 50% of the roof areas (reinforced-concrete slab roofs as a rule) of any use or obstructions, so that the space could be used as an evacuation muster area.

Capacity building for later phases

The ILO and Arup recognised the important role that FSCD could play and it was also identified as the entity that in future will regulate and enforce fire-safety compliance.

Arup was contracted by ILO to run a training course for FSCD with the objective of supplementing its knowledge in areas of fire-safety design for buildings. The course was well received by FSCD and seen by ILO to be playing an important role in the capacity building process, so it contracted Arup to work with the UN International Training Centre in Turin, to develop the coursework into an e-learning course.

In order to assess the corrective action plans (CAPs) that all the factories have had to provide after receiving their preliminary phase inspection reports, the Accord has an inspectorate office with approximately 30 local engineers for each of fire, structural and electrical safety.

Arup has been appointed by the Accord to conduct the training programme with these engineers to generally improve their technical skills and, more specifically, help them address the issues they face on a day-to-day basis with the remediation programme.

The inspections stage of the factory-safety programme has been completed and all initiatives are now engaged in the approval of CAPs, detailed engineering assessments and detailed design of remedial works proposed by the factory consultants.

The ILO-sponsored National Initiative is about to embark on this stage of the programme, and will need to deal with a number of obstacles not faced by the Accord and Alliance:

  • The inability of the state enforcement agencies to cope with the enforcement of the codes in new buildings;
  • The lack of local experience with existing buildings;
  • The Accord and Alliance have a stick they wield when enforcing their standards: if factories do not comply, the signatory brands will not place future orders with them. The ILO-sponsored National Initiative does not have the same leverage over the factories;
  • In the case of fire safety, there has been no state organism with effective control over fire-safety design in the factory buildings, and FSCD has been earmarked to carry out this role in future. It will need legislative powers, increased resources and comprehensive training to be able to effectively carry out this function.

Arup is in continuing discussions with those responsible for the worker safety initiatives, in exploring ways where we can assist to overcome these obstacles.


A large number of factory buildings have been built over the last 25 years with a weak regulatory enforcement mechanism in place. The result is that, in many cases, the safety standards envisaged by the national codes have not been implemented.

The inferior safety standards have manifested themselves via repeated multi-fatality fire incidents and a number of structural failures. The international garment brands are seeing that their CSR programmes, in which they have invested substantial time and effort, are not providing the safe environments that they set out to provide.

Both the Bangladeshi Government (encouraged by the ILO) and the international brands have seen it in their interests to address the situation and the first step is to rectify the deficiencies in the existing RMG factory building stock. This has turned out to be a mammoth undertaking, and it has become obvious that all the aspects that led to the development of the current situation need to be addressed to effectively put things right.

To ensure safe working conditions in their supply chains, the international brands need to assess the situation in each country they operate in, and adjust their CSR programmes to ensure that the gap between their programmes and what the authorities in fact provide in terms of safety on the ground is identified and actions taken to rectify the situation.

Fire engineers’ input is essential to help the international brands in assessing the level of safety provided by the state in any particular country, and to help those responsible for CSR programmes to bridge potential shortfalls. O'RiordanCivilconstruction,infrastructure,occupational safety,safety
Numerous fatal fire incidents and some structural failures in ready-made garment (RMG) factory buildings in Bangladesh led to private as well as state-run initiatives to inspect the entire stock of garment factories in that country and rectify the building safety deficiencies. The RMG sector has become key to the economy...