By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, March 2:

Bangladesh was for long known for the ravages of cyclones. Hundreds of thousands would die in cyclones before the era of early warning systems, timely evacuations and specially designed cyclone shelters. But in the past 15 years, fires in public buildings and factories have replaced cyclones as the major cause of death and destruction.

Heightened economic activity and an inexorable greed for profits have combined to normalize flouting of safety norms.

Against this background, the death of 44 men, including 26 women and three children, in Thursday night’s fire at the seven-storied Green Cozy Cottage Shopping Mall on Bailey Road in Dhaka housing numerous show rooms and restaurants, came as no surprise.

As the inferno spread through crowded shops and restaurants at about 10 pm, people had no way to escape. There were only two lifts, a single staircase and no emergency exit at all. Most died of suffocation. 75 people, including 42 in an unconscious state, were rescued by the fire brigade. A cooking gas cylinder blast could have set off the fire, it was said.  

Ghastly History

Dhaka has a ghastly history of fires in public places. In June 2010, 117 people died in a fire that ripped through one of Dhaka’s most densely populated areas. Originating in a chemical warehouse it destroyed several adjacent multi-storey apartment buildings. In December 2010, fire engulfed a multi-storey factory outside Dhaka that made clothes for the high-street retailer “Gap”.  At least 27 people died in the fire and more than 100 were injured.

Two years later in 2012, a fire in a nine-storied garment factory near Dhaka killed 111 workers

Rana Plaza Fire

But the most devastating fire was in Dhaka’s Rana Plaza nine-storey garment factory in April 2013 in which 1,113 perished. It is listed among the world’s worst industrial tragedies.

According to Al Jazeera, the Rana Plaza disaster highlighted the failure of many top Western fashion brands to protect workers in poor Bangladesh. In 2016, a court ordered 38 people, including owner Sohel Rana, to face trial for murder for falsely certifying the factory complex as safe.

Fire triggered by a boiler explosion tore through a packaging factory north of Dhaka in September 2016, killing 24 people. In July 2017, an industrial boiler exploded at a factory in Dhaka killing 13 people and causing a part of the six-storey building to collapse.

On February 21, 2019, at least 70 people were killed as a massive fire raced through several apartment buildings in Chowk Bazar in crowded old Dhaka which were used as chemical warehouses. On March 28, 2019, at least 25 office workers died and 70 were injured in a fire in the 22-storey FR Tower in Dhaka.

Some of those stuck inside made it to safety by sliding down cables on the side of the building, but as shocked onlookers watched, others took their chances and jumped out of widows from great heights.     

The Accord

Following the Rana Plaza disaster, on May 15, 2013 a five-year legally binding agreement between global brands, retailers and trade unions was signed to build a safe Bangladeshi Ready Made Garment (RMG) Industry.

Christie Miedema of the Clean Clothes Campaign for Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said in an article in 2019, that the agreement consisted of: (a) an independent inspection program supported by brands in which workers and trade unions are involved (b) public disclosure of inspection reports and corrective action plans (CAP) (c)  a commitment by signatory brands to ensure sufficient funds are available for remediation (re-training) of workers and (d) setting up of democratically elected health and safety committees in all factories to identify and act on health and safety risks.

The Accord worked. Fire accidents in the garment sector became few and far between. But since early 2018, the Accord has been at risk, with both the government and factory owners claiming that Bangladesh’s inspection systems are ready to take over the Accord’s work.  

But Miedema said that the Accord should not only continue but expanded to other industries and public buildings too.The Bangladesh Department of Inspections for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) listed 29,492 factories under its purview, but only 5,104 of which were garment factories.

In a September 2018 report, the remediation or re-education percentage for garment factories covered by DIFE’s National Initiative was at 29%. This contrasts with the 89% remediation rate in the 1,572 garment factories covered by the Accord.

Boiler Explosions

Despite Bangladesh’s long history of fatal boiler explosions, there aren’t enough boiler inspectors, Miedema points out. No testing is done. Many factory owners used to minimal inspection, flatly refused to let their boilers be tested.

The inadequacy of this practice was demonstrated in July 2017 when a boiler exploded in the Multifabs factory, killing 13 workers and injuring 20, Christie Miedema says.

Storage of Chemicals

Md Maksud Helali, Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, points out in a paper on fire accidents says that as per the fire rules of Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC, 2006), chemicals must not be stored in a residential building.

The detailed classification of materials, method of merchandising, handling and processing are laid out in the updated version of the BNBC. The storehouse for these types of chemicals should not only be separated from any kind of occupancy, but these chemicals must also be stored in specially built storehouses with explosion venting facilities.

But these rules are flouted, especially in old Dhaka.

Residential Buildings

Residential buildings up to the fourth storey don’t need any type of fixed firefighting system as per BNBC rules. But in the last few years, a huge number of high-rise buildings were constructed in Bangladesh. Most of them are not designed following fire safety rules, Helali points out. A

All high-rise buildings should have horizontal and vertical separation between floors and apartments, stairs and fire exits, fire lifts, etc, as per BNBC. But there are no fire experts to check the design in the approving committee formed by the approving authority as prescribed in the BNBC.

Even in the updated version of BNBC, despite suggestions, no fire expert is included in the approving committee. Buildings constructed after the fire law promulgation can easily be modified for fire safety. But proper guidance and monitoring are needed, Helali says.

Gas Cylinder Blasts

About 40% of people who went to hospitals with burn injuries got their injuries from fires originating in a household gas burner, Helali points out.

Leaked gas from the cylinder accumulates in the kitchen and at the time of ignition, the gas inside the room ignites and the cylinder explodes. The cylinders are not critically designed and tested. The quality of the fitting system in the cylinders is also not maintained.

To avoid explosions, ventilation of the room should be done before igniting the burner. Normally, kitchens are designed to have ventilators in the ceiling, but this is of no use for venting out leaked LPG gas. Having a ventilator at the floor level in the kitchen may help vent out the leaked gas from the kitchen and may reduce the number of accidents, Helali says.