As the clock ticks away, the survival prospects of hundreds of souls missing at Rana Plaza are getting dimmer. Let us say never again. Let us treat this as a human tragedy that could have been prevented, not a natural one that was beyond our control.
The catastrophe of Spectrum Garments in 2005 was mostly a failure of the building itself. The investigation report conducted by Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology found that the owner had made changes to the design made by the structural engineers. He made the roof slabs thicker and columns thinner, inducing a sandwich effect.
The Tazreen tragedy had its roots in human failure. The workers were trapped in the inferno by gross human negligence. As the fire alarms rang, workers were told by the supervisors that the alarms were not working properly. Workers are generally put under lock and key to prevent pilferage. As many as 112 people were roasted alive.
The Rana Plaza mayhem is a combination of two failures. One is a failure of the building; the structure was designed as a commercial building with five stories but four more stories were built. This is a gross failure of the administration in ensuring public safety.
Most buildings that are used as factories are not designed as RMG factories. They are designed as commercial or residential buildings and rented out.
Factory buildings are designed with a higher factor of safety. Generally, commercial buildings are designed with a factor of safety of 2. Garment factory buildings are designed with a factor of safety of 3 to 5.
The live loads (weight of moving/moveable objects) of storage areas or warehouses are designed with due consideration. The live load of such areas may be up to 5 times more than that of ordinary office buildings. The machines also produce vibrations that are taken into consideration.
The garment industry is labour-extensive. Provisions are made for emergency egress in case of fire, earthquake or any other emergency. Emergency routes and especially stairs are of crucial importance given the fact that the raw materials are highly flammable.
The electrical systems are designed to adjust to the changing requirements of the production floor. Properly designed electrical systems and proper components are crucial to prevent failures that may lead to fire hazards.
For RMG factories, large floor plates enhance production flow and provide the flexibility required to allow for changes in machine layouts necessary for different types of apparel. But buildings with large floor plates are not easy to ventilate using natural means. Indoor air quality is often compromised in such factories. Fans and vents are a must in such situations. This poses significant long term health risks and fatigue.
ROLE OF GOVT
As for Rana Plaza, the government has failed to ensure that the building owners adhere to approved plans. The local municipality has little power to ensure that the influential elite of the area stick to plans. This is true for almost all planning/permission agencies from the capital to the suburbs.
A dearth of competent code enforcers or inspectors adds to the nexus of undue politicking and corruption.
Rescue efforts also show the inadequacy of the disaster management agencies. The efforts of the common people show us once again who the real heroes are.
ROLES OF BUILDING
OWNERS, FACTORY MANAGERS
The workers were forced to work on that fatal day despite cracks that appeared on some columns the preceding day. After the building collapsed, the owner was rescued by the local lawmaker himself, according to press reports.
The Spectrum, Phoenix and Tazreen incidents all have a common thread -- the blanket impunity of the management.
What makes the Rana Plaza tragedy more disturbing is that its owner felt that he could get away with anything as he is an active member of the ruling party. In the recent past, the owners of Spectrum, Phoenix or Tazreen simply got away with manslaughter.
The apparel association of the prized $13 billion industry also acts with almost similar impunity for the owners of the buildings that failed. The workers simply do not have a voice.
Ensuring factory safety in this context is not an easy task. Yet it must be remembered that the situation in developed countries were essentially the same in the early phases of mass industrialisation. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911 essentially bears the same hallmark of the Tazreen fire. However, what made a difference over the next decade was the activism of the civil society and the good intentions of reformist lawmakers, politicians, human rights activists and journalists.
The situation in Bangladesh is compounded by the fatalistic nature of the simple minded masses, all too convenient for the ruling elites and owners.
But all is conspicuously not well now. The system is crushing under its own weight. This is not business as usual. This industry is bursting at its seams with dissent. The goose with the golden eggs appears to be quite ill.
On some suggestions for change, there should be a body of workers and owners to ensure safety in each factory. The team could monitor the situation; perform fire safety drills and evacuation procedures once a month, in the presence of responsible agencies.
All building permits, fire permits, factory permits with plans should be made available online on the agency websites and in the building for public display.
All stakeholders, especially the users and tenants, may see the original number of stories, intended purposed road widths, setbacks, and fire exits. Such transparency will ensure accountability of all parties.
Engineers and architects, especially safety experts, must voluntarily check the fire safety and structural integrity in the post-construction phase of buildings that were not designed as factories.
Equipment to test structural integrity is available at BUET and PWD. Such testing equipment may also be provided by the professional trade bodies.
The government planning agencies must devise plans to shift a bulk of the industry into designated industrial zones.
The success of any such measure will depend on how far public awareness and a sense of collective justice challenge the prevailing culture of asymmetric impunity.
The writer is an architect and assistant professor at Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.