FPE Extra Issue 15, March 2017

Design and Remediation of Fire Safety for Ready-Made Garment Factories in Developing Countries

By: Felipe Herrera

The pressures that led to the proliferation of hazardous industrial buildings in Bangladesh are present in developing countries around the world. This was highlighted by the May 2015 shoe factory fire that resulted in the death of 72 workers in Manila, Philippines. The local press has attributed this disaster to unenforced safety legislation.1  Similar concerns can be observed in media reports of developing countries around the world where rapid urbanization is occurring.

Development of the ready-made garment (RMG) industry in Bangladesh started in the 1980s and has expanded rapidly. It has become the second largest garment producer in the world, with garment exports representing 80% of national exports. The industry provides a vital source of employment to 4 million people.2

Construction demand generated by rapid industrialization exceeded the capacity of the construction industry, and quality suffered as a result. Poor planning, design, approval processes and construction also exist. To compound these vulnerabilities, fire safety design is often omitted or simply avoided due to a lack of understanding and professional knowledge.

The fire that killed 112 and injured 200 at the Tazreen Fashions factory in November 2012 drew the international spotlight that highlighted how inadequate fire safety could have crippled the Bangladesh’s RMG industry.3  But fortunately, manufacturing brands in Europe and subsequently North America came together with the Bangladeshi government and the International Labor Organization to take collective action to avoid further disasters.

Lessons Learned

Over the past three years, fire safety engineers worked to address the fire safety issues for this industry-wide problem in Bangladesh in a way that would be sustainable in the future. The following are lessons that emerged as a result of the different projects that were delivered and are currently under development. The findings are relevant to the Bangladesh garment industry but are also relevant to the global fire safety community responsible for the design of new buildings and the improvement of existing ones in developing and developed countries.

The implementation of fire safety in buildings requires the involvement of many stakeholders. Each stakeholder needs to have certain skills and fundamental knowledge. The stakeholders need to understand their roles and make clear their actions provide a framework that follow governmental regulations. This has shown to be complex in many developing countries, where a long route of administrative reforms and educational developments are still required.

Fire safety engineering, computational models, modernization of fire protection systems and technological advances have improved in the past three decades. Universities are now more involved in research that is intended to increase our understanding of construction materials and methods and how buildings behave during fire. This is clearly an important aspect for the present and future fire safety in developing countries. At the same time, a gap appears in low- and mid-developed countries where this existing knowledge and technical advancements are not being implemented.

The international fire engineering community can fill this gap by transferring knowledge to areas of the world that are most vulnerable to fire disasters, e.g., developing countries with a high-manufacturing culture, by:

  1. Involving professional organizations such as SFPE in developing fire safety practices, guidelines and codes in developing countries.
  2. Determining if fire-engineered solutions and performance-based approaches are relevant in middle- and low-income countries that are lacking fundamental fire safety practices.
  3. Focusing international fire safety standards on issues in emerging countries.

There are many lessons learned from this work to improve fire safety in Bangladesh’s RMG industry.

Technical knowledge—Currently, a substantial difference in educational levels exists between countries with a tradition in fire safety engineering and developing countries in general. At the time of assessing, surveying and refurbishing existing buildings to achieve a high level of design and detailing, it is necessary to involve technically skilled people within the teams of stakeholders.

Ideally, fundamental technical skills shall be acquired at the university level, but practical professional skills are also required. Currently, developing countries requiring fire safety assessments of existing and new buildings need to build capacity from international sources, such as private companies, educational institutions and governmental agencies.

Fire safety is more than design—Fire safety design is not just about the design. To be meaningful, fire safety design needs to be administratively regulated, implemented and commissioned correctly with ongoing management and maintenance procedures in place.

Regulatory framework—All fire safety stakeholders need to understand the local jurisdiction’s regulatory requirements and be accountable for their individual responsibilities.

Fire risks and costs—Building projects in developing countries tend to have more financial limitations. As such, fire safety measures are often perceived as unpractical. Quantitative or qualitative fire risk-based analyses could be orientated toward cost-benefit analyses to determine if countries or industries need to focus more on fire safety measures as opposed to other measures.

Resilience and safety risks—Some developing countries may undermine fire risks in comparison with other risks, such as seismic risks that usually appear to be (but may not be) higher due to the typical larger event magnitudes.

Design for safety since the beginning—International companies should take into consideration the fire safety initiatives occurring in Bangladesh to mitigate mistakes from the past and try to involve local governments, organizations and companies to start designing for safety from the beginning of a project. Examples of this conscious planning are already occurring on new projects that are being promoted by garment companies located in countries with a critical fire safety culture.

Felipe Herrera is with Arup Fire


[1]Mullen, J. (2015, May 14). 72 Killed in Fire at Footwear Factory in Philippines. CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/05/14/asia/philippines-factory-fire/.

[2]Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. March 2017. About Garment Industry of Bangladesh. http://www.bgmea.com.bd/home/pages/AboutGarmentsIndustry

[3]Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. March 2017. Lawsuit against Tazreen.

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