Only one in 10 Bangladesh garment plants safe: engineers

Only one in 10 garment factory buildings inspected by engineers from a top Bangladesh university were structurally sound, underlining the scale of safety problems for the world's second-biggest clothes producer, the head engineer said Thursday.

Building and factory owners rushed to request engineers check the buildings in the wake of the collapse of the nine-storey garment factory complex in April that killed 1,129 people, Bangladesh's worst industrial disaster.

Six buildings, housing garment factories, have been cleared as structurally sound after being inspected by teams of engineers from the country's prestigious Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).

Structural flaws, ranging from minor to severe, were discovered at another 60 buildings in and near the capital Dhaka, including two that could collapse at any moment, Mohammad Mujibur Rahman, head of BUET's civil engineering department, told AFP.

"Of the 66, we found only six buildings to be perfect and without any noticeable distress or deviation," said Rahman, whose final report into the inspections will be handed to officials in coming days.

Teams requested that two buildings, housing multiple garment plants, be shut down immediately after cracks were discovered, similar to those found at the Rana Plaza, one day before it collapsed, Rahman said, adding that authorities have complied, shuttering both.

"We've also asked the owners of another four structures to conduct detailed structural analysis immediately, possibly by tomorrow, as they have major structural problems," said Rahman, a professor who teaches civil engineering at the university.

Fifteen teams, of two engineers each, checked the foundations, support columns and other structures of the buildings and the soil they were built on, as well as any documents and plans that could be produced.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza highlighted appalling safety issues at Bangladesh's 4,500 garment factories whose workers churn out clothes for the world's leading Western retailers.

Many of the buildings were thrown up quickly, sometimes without consulting engineers, to house factories for the garment industry, the mainstay of the Bangladesh economy, accounting for 80 percent of the country's $25 billion annual exports.

Bangladesh government has embarked on a major inspection drive of its own, deploying dozens of teams to probe the safety of the factories in an effort to reassure worried retailers.

The 66 garment factories were among 102 buildings that the engineering teams inspected, upon request, including banks, schools and private businesses. Many did not have design plans, drawings or records of their construction on file for inspection.

"Many of these buildings were residential quarters before they were converted into factories. Quite a few were built without qualified engineers and several have had multiple floors added to the structure, flouting construction norms," Rahman said.

About 40 percent of the total buildings inspected "have significant cracks and distress" but do not impose any immediate danger, with more detailed analysis to be carried out in the next three months, he said.

"The rest, 60 percent, have minor distress or deviations, that don't have any structural significance," he said.

"Most of these buildings are safe to operate under current loading patterns for the time being. But we have asked almost every building to conduct detailed structural analysis. And that job may take years to complete," he added.

A report on the inspections will be handed to the state-run Capital Development Authority, which has the power to order improvements to the buildings or shut them down, he said.

Garment industry bosses as well as the government have been trying to persuade Western fashion firms not to move production out of Bangladesh in the wake of the disaster.

Fearing a consumer backlash, many Western retailers have since launched their own monitoring of Bangladesh's factories, including of fire safety conditions.