Author(s): James Shannon. Published on July 1, 2013.

First Word - July/August 2013

IN RECENT MONTHS, INTERNATIONAL NEWS MEDIA have brought us a series of stories from garment factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan, incidents that have claimed the lives of at least 1,500 workers. Last September 11 in Karachi, Pakistan, a boiler explosion in a factory owned by Ali Enterprises led to a fire that killed 289 people. Exit doors were locked and windows were barred, and many workers suffocated or were killed in the crush as people tried to find a way out. The same day in Lahore, Pakistan, 25 people were killed in a fire in a shoe factory where there were inadequate exits.

On November 24, 2012, a fire broke out in the Tazreen Fashion factory outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Large amounts of fabrics and yarn led to a rapid fire spread. As with the fires in Pakistan, the building’s exits were inadequate, and some workers leapt from the higher floors to their deaths. Others suffocated or burned to death. More than 100 people died in that fire.

While the enormous loss of life from these incidents reminded us of the horrible and archaic working conditions that exist in many parts of the world, no one could have envisioned what was to come. On April 24, the Rana Plaza Factory, an eight-story commercial building also located outside Dhaka, simply collapsed, with thousands of workers inside. The world watched as attempts were made to rescue people trapped in a nightmare of twisted rebar and shattered concrete. In the end, 1,127 died, and another 2,500 people were injured.

It is appalling in the 21st century that workers anywhere in the world would be subjected to conditions like these. As an organization whose mission is safety, we should ask ourselves the question NFPA has always asked when tragedies like these have occurred: What can we do to prevent them from happening again? Our own history provides the answer.

After the Triangle Waist Co. fire in New York in 1911 took the lives of 146 people, most of them garment workers, NFPA led the way in upgrading working conditions in the United States by developing the Building Exits Code, which has evolved into NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®. As an organization that is regarded as a worldwide authority on safety, we must contribute to the effort to raise standards of safety for workers everywhere.

Our policy is to make our codes and standards available on a royalty-free basis for governments of countries that wish to translate them and adopt or use them as national standards. Adoption of NFPA 1, Fire Code, and the Life Safety Code by the governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh is a way for those countries to begin to raise safety standards for their work force. NFPA stands ready to provide technical assistance in that process.

To be realistic about this, however, we also believe that safety standards for garment factories will only improve when their customers, including the owners of the major American clothing brands, require that safety standards for workers be improved and maintained. We encourage them to join with us in the effort to improve working conditions in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and other countries that need these kinds of jobs to improve living standards for their people. Those countries can develop economically and provide for worker safety. A hundred years of experience in the United States shows that it can be done.