Of the major six industrial accidents taking place in the world between 2007 and 2016, three had happened in Bangladesh, said a report published in the recent issue of a Dhaka daily.
The death toll of these accidents was substantial, 1,600 in total. Bangladesh accidents involving apparel factories claimed most lives, Rana Plaza being at the top. The latest accident in the Tampaco Foils Factory at Tongi has come as a reminder of the standard of safety in Bangladesh industrial units, big and small, and beyond textile sector.
Compared to the state of industrialisation in the country, the rate of industrial accidents in recent years by any measure has been quite high. Manufacturing has been growing continuously, but it is still not that large, if seen in the context of its contribution to the country's gross domestic product (GDP). The expansion of manufacturing has been taking place primarily in the textiles sector. And most accidents are also taking place in the same sector.
Following the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions accidents, there was global concern about the workers' safety in the Bangladesh apparel units. Two international coalitions are now engaged in improving safety standard in these factories and they have been largely successful in raising the safety level in a good number of garment factories.
But beyond apparel units, the safety standard in most other manufacturing and other industrial units is thought to be poor. In fact, since the beginning of the process of industrialisation neither the owners nor the relevant agencies have attached due importance to safety issues. The owners have never felt the importance of ensuring safety at the workplace, big or small. The government agencies where corruption, inertia, incompetence and shortage of manpower and logistics rule the roost have been indifferent to the need for ensuring safety in mills and factories.
How workers are exposed to unsafe situation at their workplaces is seen every day everywhere. If some semblance of safety is visible in the organised section of the industries, the same is almost absent in mills, factories and workshops that have emerged haphazardly and in an unplanned manner. One can well guess the state of safety level if one visits hundreds of so-called small manufacturing, assembling, engineering workshops in Dhaka and other cities and towns. Thousands of workers, including children, work in extreme unsafe working environment. Many such units even do not have any official approval. But none appears to be concerned about all the developments.
The Tampaco Foils is a case in point. The reason for Tampaco fire that led to the collapse of the factory buildings is yet to be unearthed. Initially, the explosion of factory boiler was thought to be the cause. But, later, an inspectorate of boilers, following visits to the accident site, had ruled out such a possibility.
A Bengali contemporary in a report, published in its September 18 issue, blamed the factory owner for the accident that has claimed the lives of 34 workers and injured many more. Eleven more workers remained missing until Saturday last. The factory management, allegedly, installed a small boiler beside the large one, beyond the knowledge of the Inspectorate of Boilers. And to make available sufficient quantity of gas to the boilers they had installed a 'booster' machine to draw piped gas in excess volume. It is feared that the machine in question, for one reason or another, had gone off and caused the fire.
The inspector of boiler concerned had put on a brave face while dismissing the boiler explosion as the cause of Tampaco fire. But allegations of indifference on the part of the Inspectorate of Boilers or the Department of Explosives are aplenty. They, it is alleged, fail to do their jobs, in relation to inspection of boilers and instruments and materials having explosive properties. A section of unscrupulous owners grease their palms regularly to stay away from inspection.
What is most troubling is that the workers themselves are least bothered about their own safety at their workplaces. To them work that fetches some amount of money at the end of the day matters most. Safety at workplace is a secondary issue. That is why workers, including masons, painters, glass fitters, wearing no protective gears are seen working at the exterior of tall buildings. They often get killed or maimed for life following accidents. A good number of such fatal accidents go unreported.
The safety issues even in the organised section of industries, manufacturing or otherwise, are yet to get the importance those deserve. It is a failure on the part of both owners and government. However, with sincere efforts by all concerned, the situation can be improved. But it would really be a Herculean task to ensure safety in the disorganised section of industries, most of which are tiny in size. Yet the government worth its name cannot stay away from a must-do job, no matter how difficult it is.