By Gregory Havel
On November 24, 2012, a fire started on the ground floor of Tazreen Fashions in a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh. By the time the fire was extinguished 17 hours later, 112 factory workers had died and 200 were injured. Because of the presence of a large amount of fabric, yarn, and scrap, the fire spread rapidly through the nine-story factory’s first floor and then to its upper floors.
Although the fire was initially reported to be the result of arson and sabotage, news stories from Associated Press, CNN, International Business Times, and Reuters agencies (in print and on the Internet) reported that the fire started on the ground floor caused by an overloaded electrical circuit. This fire trapped the 1,400 workers because the three stairways from the upper floors exited into the fully-involved first floor rather than to the exterior of the building.
The three stairways were narrow and unable to accommodate a timely evacuation of all of the employees. To escape the flames, many workers jumped from windows. Many of them were severely injured and died later in hospitals. Those who were able to escape to the factory’s roof were easily rescued.
Investigators discovered that the factory’s fire inspection certificate had expired in June 2012 and that inspectors refused to renew it because of the unsafe conditions present. At the time of the fire, the factory had not yet been closed because of these unsafe conditions resulting from ongoing legal proceedings. The investigators also found that the building originally had only three floors; five floors had been added, and a ninth floor was under construction at the time of the fire.
On November 28, 2012, three of the factory supervisors were arrested and charged with criminal negligence including the padlocking of exit doors and prohibiting workers from leaving the factory at the time of the fire because it was “just a drill.”
An official from the government agency responsible for building codes in Dhaka stated that the agency was aware of the conditions at Tazreen Fashions and at other garment factories; it had chosen not to act to avoid a confrontation with the powerful garment industry, which is responsible for most of the exports from Bangladesh.
(1. Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress)
The Tazreen Fashions fire is in many ways similar to the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City, which killed 146 workers on March 25, 1911—101 years earlier (photos 1, 2). The factories shared the following similarities:
- They were located in buildings that were not designed and built as garment factories.
- They were in nine-story buildings.
- They were crowded with production equipment and poorly-paid workers.
- They were filled with fabric, fabric scraps, and combustible dust.
- They were operated with profits as the primary concern of the owners.
- Both had inadequate means of egress (exits) from the production areas to the street.
- Both had their exit doors locked to prevent workers from leaving their work areas.
- They had failed fire inspections before the fires.
- They had no automatic fire sprinkler systems.
- The incidents resulted in criminal prosecution of supervisors or owners.
As a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, improvements in building and fire codes and working conditions were seen in New York and throughout the United States as well as an expanding union movement among garment workers and a greater awareness of fire prevention issues.
To date, the Tazreen Fashions fire has only resulted in the appointment of a commission to inspect the thousands of garment factories in Bangladesh. Its task has only begun.
A lesson we must learn from both of these disastrous fires is that building and fire code issues must be addressed when and where they are found for the protection of the public and of emergency service responders. No enterprise should be too important to the local economy or its owners or managers too influential for its hazards not to be addressed in a timely fashion to prevent another disaster such as these.
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Gregory Havel is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College; and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 30 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.
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