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Questions for a global economy: protecting workers against factory fires

Fires in the workplace are among the most feared industrial events, and have left their mark on history. From the 1911 factory fire in New York City that killed 146 textile workers, to more recent industrial accidents or incidents around the world that have left hundreds of dead and injured, such events often lead to the adoption of labour laws to protect factory workers. A spate of recent industrial fires have again underlined the need for vigilance, planning and preparation for dealing with the unexpected - especially in the form of a viable evacuation plan. ILO occupational safety and health expert David Gold spoke with ILO Online about fire protection and emergency management.

Article | 30 March 2006

ILO online: How frequent are large-scale factory fires and other incidents or involving high heat or flame?

David Gold: We do not have global numbers, but numerous fires are reported from all over the world. In 1993, a major fire at the Kader Industrial Co. Ltd. Factory in Thailand killed 188 workers. This disaster stands as the world's worst accidental loss-of-life fire in an industrial building in recent history.

ILO online: What do these disasters have in common, if anything?

David Gold: Where a large number of workers are concerned, it is not possible to evacuate the working areas in a timely manner without an evacuation plan. In the wake of the devastation of the World Trade Center in New York, for example, we must recognize that while some 4,000 lives were lost, over 25,000 lives were saved. Why? Because of an evacuation plan which worked.

ILO online: What are the main features of a viable evacuation plan?

David Gold: The fact that so many people were able to evacuate the World Trade Center building successfully attests to the importance of certain considerations relevant to any workplace. First, there needs to be emergency planning, addressing action to be taken in case of a fire. Second, there needs to be, at a bare minimum, two well-lighted, clearly marked, unobstructed ways from the workstation to a safe area. Evacuation routes and alternative routes should be clearly posted at each workstation. Third, there needs to be coordination among the employer, the in-house emergency service, and the local emergency services. Batteries and back-up generators need to be in place to assure adequate lighting to support evacuation. Finally, we need a mechanism to account for workers, visitors and guests in a safe area, and procedures for assisting the disabled in emergency evacuation.

ILO online: Despite the considerable prevention and regulation efforts that have taken place since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York, factory fires still occur today, particularly in developing countries ... can you see any progress made over the last decades?

David Gold: Of course, the situation has considerably improved in developed countries. But there are also promising signs in the developing world. Let me give you an example. Various domestic and international agencies have focused on the fire at the Kader Factory in Thailand. It was the objective of the ILO study team at that time to develop an understanding of what occurred and to propose protective measures that can be applied at the enterprise level. The analysis we did in 1993 clearly had an impact on the safety and health record of that country. The ILO fire prevention checklist was translated into Thai and, most important, awareness has grown among government agencies and the social partners. In the long run, safety at work also pays and many political decision makers have understood this. Addressing the 2005 World Congress on Occupational Safety and Health in Orlando, Florida, Thaksin Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand, said that 'prevention is paying not only in human terms but also in better performance by

ILO online: What is the role of government and the social partners?

David Gold: Government should provide for an appropriate labour inspectorate with ample funding, a sufficient number of labour inspectors and a well-organized inspection strategy. To assist inspectorates, the ILO's SafeWork programme developed a guide called "Ten steps for Strengthening Labour Inspection", which provides policy makers and labour inspectors with guidance and a comprehensive overview of labour inspection practice. Workers and employers play an equally important role. The ILO Guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Management Systems encourage the integration of OSH with other management systems and state that OSH should be an integral part of business management. While integration is desirable, flexible arrangements are required depending on the size and type of operation. It is also important, that every worker receives adequate training in OSH, particularly prevention and emergency planning.

ILO online: How can the ILO help preventing industrial fires?

David Gold: The ILO Constitution calls for "adequate protection for the life and health of workers in all occupations". The ILO Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155) states, that employers shall be required to provide, where necessary, for measures to deal with emergencies and accidents, including adequate first-aid arrangements. The 2001 ILO Guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Management Systems called for establishing and maintaining emergency prevention, preparedness and response arrangements. These arrangements should identify the potential for accidents and emergency situations, and address the prevention of OSH risks associated with them. The arrangements should be made according to the size and nature of activity of the organization. It states that these arrangements should be established in cooperation with external emergency services and other bodies, where applicable. The ILO has also been actively supporting initiatives in some countries for developing national policies and programmes, while in others, it has been working closely with governments to establish national tripartite advisory bodies for OSH.

Efforts to tackle OSH problems, whether at international or national levels, are often dispersed and fragmented and as a result do not have the level of coherence necessary to produce effective impact. There is thus a need to give higher priority to OSH at international, national and enterprise levels and to engage all social partners to initiate and sustain mechanisms for a continued improvement of national OSH systems.

ILO online: This kind of disaster also raises questions for a global economy?

David Gold: Moving into the global economy implies that products are manufactured at one location and used at other locations throughout the world. Desire for competitiveness in this new market should not lead to compromise in fundamental industrial fire safety provisions. There is a moral obligation to provide workers with an adequate level of fire protection, no matter where they are located. This is also reflected in the ILO's Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy which states that "multinational enterprises should maintain the highest standards of safety and health, in conformity with national requirements, bearing in mind their relevant experience within the enterprise as a whole, including any knowledge of special hazards…They, like comparable domestic enterprises, should be expected to play a leading role in the examination of causes of industrial safety and health hazards and in the application of resulting improvements within the enterprise as a whole".