12:00 AM, November 29, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 29, 2012

Workplaces that are death traps

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Ziauddin Choudhury

Photo: Habibul Haque/ Drik News

One of the most disposable items in our country is human life. Abroad we read about loss of hundreds of lives from sinking of overloaded motor launches in rivers, from runaway buses driven by half-trained operators that fall into ditches and, as added measures, deaths from fires in factories in premises that never have been inspected for safety. We are used to watching on TV horrific and heart-rending video images of bodies being recovered from sunken vehicles, scorched buildings, and road side ditches.
We have seen and read about righteous indignation of our public officials at these incidents, dire threats of punishment to those responsible for such disasters that are never carried out, and empty promises that the nation will never face such disasters again.
But while the families of the countless victims wail and lament their losses, the people who are primarily responsible for these deaths and disasters, and their facilitators such as our public officials, are quick to point fingers elsewhere and try to absolve themselves of any wrongdoing. It is as though the people who perished in these disasters ended their lives voluntarily.
When will we learn to take ownership for these completely avoidable disasters? When will we learn to treat each human life as an asset that is more valuable than the product it makes? The recent Ashulia disaster is just another addition to the countless incidents of total callousness that prevails in the country over safety and protection of workers from workplace hazards.
We have had fires in garment factories several times before where workers lost their lives. Only a few days ago we had fires in a low income housing area surrounded by unsafe factories where lives were lost.
Close on the heels of the recent Ashulia fire we also had this lightning-like accident where girders fell off a fly over construction project that killed eleven people in Chittagong.
After none of these accidents or disasters in the past did we hear the people who owned the factories or the buildings come out and take ownership for the tragedies or take measures that would prevent repetition of such incidents. We also did not hear of any punitive action against the defaulting owners by the government. Instead, if I recall correctly, there was plenty of talk of deep conspiracies against the garment industry by persons unknown that were labelled as the causes of frequent fires. No one talked about setting up standards of safety for the factories and workers, or their rigid implementation and monitoring by government. Each incident was allowed to pass into oblivion until another happened.
As in all disasters or accidents in the past a host of reasons has been cited in the press for the Ashulia and Bahaddar Hat misfortunes.
These include failure to operate fire extinguishers in the building, blocking of exit routes of workers and, in the case of the Chittagong incident, a faulty crane that lifted the girders.
Absent from these reports is any indication or statement whether the factory owner or the flyover construction company had any mechanism in place that would ensure safety of workers or equipment.
It is also not clear what role the owners played during and after the incident besides announcing some gratuities to the victims after the fact.
The Ashulia incident and the incident in Bahaddar Hat in Chittagong would not have happened if we had taken lessons from the past. These would not have not happened had we employed a minimum standard of workplace safety, and held the people who engage workers in factories and construction projects, responsible for providing safe workplace.
The garment factories in Bangladesh today are situated on opposite ends of the safety spectrum.
On one end are those modern facilities that are located in different export processing zones and have rather rigid safety standards.
On the other end we have a series of garment factories that line up the Airport Road, Uttara, and other roads, all with cage-like appearances where it seems accidents are waiting to happen.
Workplace safety is a prime consideration for a government before a business is allowed to operate. In western countries a small departure from the safety codes and standards is cause for suspension of the business. Along with strict building codes and safety standards a practice that is regularly in vogue in most industrial countries is training workers in handling emergencies such as fire through drills.
No amount of fire extinguishers will be of use if the people who work in these buildings do not know how to operate them. Along with that also essential is training in emergency response through mock drills. Many of the buildings that I have seen on the Airport Road and Uttara were perhaps not originally intended to be factories, yet we have hundreds of people sweating their way in these accident prone buildings day after day, without a care either from the owners or from the government.
The accidents of this week would not have happened if the employers and our public officials had learnt to take preventive measures from the beginning. The accidents would not have happened if our public officials had strictly enforced the safety rules and taken punitive action against the offenders instead of smelling conspiracies in disasters.
The lives that have been lost at Ashulia or in Chittagong cannot be brought back; nor can the livelihood the victims provided to their families be restored. What can be done is to ensure that such incidents are not repeated.
This can be done by regular inspection of the buildings and the equipment that are used, ensuring that they all meet the minimum standards for safety and operation.
Finding scapegoats for these accidents and finger-pointing will do us no good. I hope and pray that we will not watch and read about such avoidable disasters in the future. I hope and pray that we all learn that human lives are not disposable items.

The writer is a former civil servant and a retired World Bank staff member.

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