When it comes to sourcing products from overseas supply chains, brands face ever-increasing pressure from consumers to ensure that their practices are ethically responsible. Brands need to look after their business interests as well as workers and the environment in overseas locations. This is particularly critical in low-cost sourcing destinations, where workers and the environment are more vulnerable to exploitation.
Structural safety is one issue related to worker safety that brands need to be proactive in addressing. This is the issue of whether buildings are safe for workers to work in
While many brands do address issues such as structural safety as soon as they come to light, unfortunately, some issues only get proper attention after disastrous events. One such event that gained worldwide coverage was the Rana Plaza disaster. This individual incident seriously affected the public conscience and changed what brands do about building safety in their supply chains.
Over ten years ago, on 24th April 2013, the Rana Plaza, an eight-story building on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed. 1134 people were killed and 2500 more were injured. The building contained five garment factories, and the vast majority of those who were killed and injured were women working in those factories.
The disaster served to highlight serious failings in the attitude toward manufacturing building safety in the fashion industry. A number of building safety failings contributed to the collapse, including the addition of extra floors beyond what the building was designed to hold and its conversion from commercial to industrial use.
Moreover, cracks in the building’s structure were identified the day before the collapse. While workers in the bank and shops were evacuated, those in the garment factories were forced to continue working. Poor building auditing procedures were also pointed out as a problem.
Today, international businesses, including fashion brands, can use professional, effective structural safety auditing to ensure the buildings their suppliers operate in are safe for workers.
For auditing to be effective, an organized, verified system must be introduced. Good auditing goes beyond completing an isolated audit. An entire process needs to be followed to ensure that not only are issues identified but that appropriate actions are also taken.
Regular structural audits are essential, and timely corrective action needs to be taken. Other follow-up work may also be necessary.
The stages in the structural safety auditing process are:
1. Initial structural and fire safety audit
An initial audit should be carried out by experienced and licensed engineering professionals operating to a comprehensive and verified procedure. This will assess building safety and identify any existing issues.
The audit should include:
a. Verification of load conditions
b. Evaluation of the structural system of the building
c. Detection of structural defects, damages, distress, deformation or deterioration
d. Plan and alignment check
e. Assessment of maintenance and exposure to aggressive environmental conditions
f. Review of building description and construction approvals
g. Fire safety check
h. Electrical safety check
2. Corrective Action Plan
The normal outcome of a structural audit is to introduce a corrective action plan (CAP). A list of corrective measures with a timeline for implementation will be set out in the CAP where shortcomings are discovered during the audit.
3. CAP implementation
It’s crucial that a CAP is implemented. Far too many structural safety initiatives don’t apply enough pressure after the fact-finding stage. There are often delays to improvement, or no action is actually taken. Suppliers and brands must cooperate to ensure a CAP is followed through.
4. Follow-up audits
Even if a CAP is implemented, further ongoing effort is needed. As a minimum standard, follow-up audits should be conducted at least once a year. More frequent check-ups can be useful in finding certain risks (especially fire and electrical risks) that could be dangerous if not identified quickly.
5. Supplier safety training
Involving workers in structural safety can be very productive. It allows those in charge of building safety to take advantage of the vast knowledge factory workers have. Promoting awareness and opening lines of communication can be an excellent way to identify structural safety issues.
Since the Rana Plaza disaster, positive progress has been made in the approach to structural safety in Bangladesh, particularly in the garment industry.
Immediately following the disaster, other export-oriented garment factories in Bangladesh were inspected for danger.
Over the past ten years, other changes have also been made:
Two international safety initiatives were established: the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety
Amendments to the Bangladesh Labour Act and the Bangladesh Labour Rules enabled the establishment of more trade unions in Bangladesh
The National Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Policy and a National Plan of Action were established
A compensation scheme for garment workers in Bangladesh was introduced in 2022
Despite some progress in improving structural safety, issues persist in low-cost sourcing destinations. Within Bangladesh, while reforms have been implemented in the garment industry, other industries remain exposed to problems.
QIMA data collected through onsite factory audits in 2019-2020 shows that most manufacturing powerhouses in Asia and Southeast Asia still suffer from structural problems.
Of the factories we looked at:
2.4% presented an immediate risk to worker life and safety
Two-thirds (63.2%) were in need of remediation for structural, fire and electrical issues
Only 34.4% were found to be in good condition
There have also been further serious incidents in supplier premises within the last ten years:
On 12th August 2015, explosions at a container storage station in Tianjin, China killed 173 people
A fire at a fireworks factory in Tangerang, Indonesia on 26th October 2017 killed at least 49 people
On 4th June 2022, a fire and explosions at a depot in Chittagong, Bangladesh killed at least 47 people and injured around 450 more
In light of these ongoing and devastating issues, it’s imperative that companies proactively address structural safety concerns and prioritize the safety and well-being of workers. Failure to do so risks not only severe human costs but also significant disruptions to supply chains and brand reputational damage. By taking steps to improve structural safety, companies can demonstrate their commitment to ethical and responsible sourcing practices and contribute to a safer and more sustainable future.
To learn more about structural safety, download our free quick guide Structural Safety: The Life and Death Question of Your Supply Chain for more insights.