Blatant negligence of complying with the government instruction to form a safety committee comprising owners and workers has led to yet another deadly blaze at the Shezan Juice factory in Narayanganj on Thursday, claiming 52 lives.
The country saw several devastating factory fires over the years, including those at Tazreen Fashion and Trampaco, and experts say the absence of proper fire safety measures and not following the government's fire safety instructions are the main reasons behind these accidents.
Brig Gen (retd) Abu Nayeem Md Shahidullah, a member of the National Health and Safety Council, told The Business Standard that they had instructed all factories to form a safety committee, but factories, except for those in the clothing sector, had not complied.
He said Accord and Alliance had taken some initiatives to improve fire safety issues at readymade garment factories in Bangladesh.
That is why safety issues at apparel factories had improved, but other sectors had remained mostly neglected, he said.
He also said factory workers are also partially responsible as they do not consciously follow fire safety instructions.
The fire at the six-storey Shezan Juice factory broke out at 5pm on Thursday, leaving over 50 workers trapped inside.
Rozina, a 17-year-old worker at the factory, survived the accident and was sent to a private hospital in Bhulta for treatment.
She said the workers had been confined on the second floor for more than two hours after the fire had broken out.
"At first, we went to the stairs but those were engulfed by the deadly fire. We could not breathe because of the heavy smoke. It was like we were dying either by the fire or because of breathing difficulties," she told The Business Standard.
"Then we tried to jump off the windows but those were also locked with a grill and nets. At one point, a female co-worker pushed me from behind and I fell off the second floor through the windows bent by the accident. Another woman who was holding my hand also fell off with me," she added.
She sustained injuries in her jaw and said she could not believe she had survived the accident.
Of the 52 victims, the bodies of 49 were sent to Dhaka Medical College Hospital for DNA testing and would be handed over to the family members after the test, said Executive Magistrate Nurun Nabi.
Deputy Director (operations and maintenance) of Fire Service and Civil Defence Debashish Bardhan told The Business Standard the fourth and fifth floors had seen the highest damage.
"The stairs were not enough and just two stairs were inside such a big factory. There should have been at least four to six stairs for emergency exit. The panicked workers also tried to come out through the stairs, which were engulfed by the fire," he said.
"We found explosive items and some chemicals were stored on different floors, which might have turned the whole factory into a death trap. We will thoroughly investigate the incident. But we primarily assume the fire broke out from the first floor and all the packaging and foil papers were stored there," he said.
"If the workers could go to the rooftop, that might have been safer for them and some of them could have easily come down through our ladder," he added.
Firefighter Fatematuz Rozina told The Business Standard they had been recovering dead bodies since Friday morning but could not save anyone alive.
"What we saw on the fourth floor is just a graveyard. Only one dead body was found in a normal state and the others burned to ashes," she said.
"Some workers tried to come out by bending side window grills but could not. Some also jumped off the building on Thursday night. Shirin Sharmin was one of those who died after jumping off the factory," she added.
Four probe bodies formed
Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) said on Friday legal action would be taken against whoever was responsible for the incident if negligence was found.
Its Director General Abdullah Al Mamun visited the scene in the afternoon and said three probe committees had been formed in this connection.
He said the committees had been formed by the fire service, the Narayanganj district administration, and the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments.
The Fire Service and Civil Defence also formed a committee, headed by its Director Zillur Rahman, to investigate the fire. The committee has been asked to submit its report within seven days.
Factory owner blames workers' negligence
Md Abul Hashem, chairman of Sajeeb Group, the parent company of Shezan Juice, said workers' negligence might have caused the fire.
He said some workers might have lit cigarettes, which triggered the flame.
The ground floor of the building had many flammable substances, which might have increased the intensity of the fire, he said.
"Cartons kept on the ground floor might have spread the fire as the upper floors only contained machines and equipment," he added.
Soumen Barua, deputy inspector general at the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, told The Business Standard the factory was not 100% compliant.
He said they had served a notice to the factory a month ago and asked them to ensure full compliance.
Filing a case against the factory was already underway before the accident and now actions would be taken in light of that, he added.
Lessons from previous factory fires
Among the deadly factory fires in the country in the last decade were the 2012 Tazreen Fashion blaze that killed 112 people and the 2016 Tampaco fire, which claimed 36 lives.
At least 10 workers of Luxury Fan Factory in Gazipur were killed in a fire in 2019. The fire originated from an electric short circuit in the factory's armature section.
Accord and Alliance were formed for five years to improve working conditions at garment factories in light of the Rana Plaza collapse on 24 April 2013, which left over 1,100 people dead.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said Accord had issued compliance certificates for only 200 out of 1,600 factories till May last year.
The country's apparel industry has experienced a significant improvement in safety and compliance issues due to the pressure created by Accord and Alliance. Factory owners' good intentions also played a critical role.
"Fires or structural failures take place in different industrial sectors across the world, but the magnitude of the Rana Plaza incident was unprecedented. We have learned a lot from it, but we needed to pay a great price for it," former BGMEA president Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin told The Business Standard.
"Our factories had to spend at least half a million dollars on average to comply with fire safety, structural safety, and electrical safety," he said.