It seems that for great change to take place, a great disaster must first occur. This is particularly true in the world of safety regulations, where almost every one is the result of a tragedy that happened in the workplace.
Most recently, the devastating factory fire that killed at least 112 people in Bangladesh shed light on the need for sweeping change in foreign factory safety conditions.
The fire revealed the many ways safe working conditions were sacrificed for cheap production, leaving big questions to be answered:
How did this happen? Who should be held responsible? What can be done?
Mistakes were clearly made. Three of the factory’s managers are suspected of blocking the doors before the fire, cutting off employees from escape. But can the blame be placed solely on them?
According to the Wall Street Journal article, For Wal-Mart, Sears, Tough Questions in Bangladesh Fire this fire underscores the difficulties Western companies have policing the safety conditions of factories in foreign countries. The article says, “Even when companies find problems at plants… the issues often aren't revealed to the public or to government officials.”
Instead of reporting and fixing the problem, companies typically relocate to another factory, constantly on the lookout for the cheapest production costs. Labor-rights organizations cry foul at this practice, claiming it prevents any incentive to spend on safety precautions that would drive up expenses, including fire safety.
Brands sold at Wal-Mart and Sears were being produced at the factory, but both companies are denying any responsibility.
No matter who winds up taking the blame for the fire, the question of what is to be done remains. How can a similar tragedy be prevented?
Of course EHS regulations should be strictly enforced and a standard budget put in place for safety expenses in foreign factories. But these solutions don’t seem to get to the root of the problem—the worth, or lack thereof, companies place on human life.
It’s far too easy for corporations to become ignorant of conditions workers in foreign factories deal with. Safety standards are often forfeited for cheap labor and low prices in countries with loosely enforced regulations.
If regulations were viewed as ways to uphold the value human life by protecting it rather than rules followed to avoid fines and trouble, perhaps there might be a change in their enforcement.
Certain companies, like Gap and Nike, are working to improve their production practices and increase regulatory compliance. Gap plans to make $20 million in capital available to its factory base for safety improvements. Nike has become transparent about where they’re producing goods and avoids production in “high-risk” countries. They also weigh worker safety and health when judging their suppliers.
Another solution for companies is to utilize compliance technologies to identify the key EHS regulations at all locations. Software can help manage the tasks associated with the regulation, easing the burden of compliance and can help prevent disastrous situations.
Of course, no business will ever get it perfect; regulations wouldn’t exist if that was the case.
The hope is that from this tragedy in Bangladesh, regulating safety standards will become a higher priority for companies. Not to avoid punishment, but to place the proper value on the lives of employees.