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Safety culture – time to secure the belt

It is good news, indeed, that there have been general improvements in safety standards at the readymade garment industries recently. No doubt, it is a big relief for the country as health and safety of workers, particularly those working in the garments sector in Bangladesh, became a global issue in the recent years which brought in a lot of embarrassment for the government and the industry. While recurrence of fire and other accidents in the garments industries across the country during the last decade has been catching global attention and outcries, the tragic incident of Rana Plaza collapse killing over one thousand workers and maiming thousands more three years ago, played the key role in enforcing appropriate safety standards. Massive protests by consumer rights groups and human rights activists all around the world following the Rana Plaza disaster compelled the authorities to follow strict safety guidelines. It was a dire necessity to safeguard and sustain the multi-billion dollar sector which is also the biggest employer in the country. In general, safety culture has always been at a low ebb in this country. Bangladesh had basically an agriculture-based economy and when rapid industrialization started taking off, health and safety standards were either never considered or sidelined. The civil society or the human rights groups or even the workers themselves never made any demand. As such, the investors went on developing and operating without any respect to the safety standards. More importantly, the concerned authorities were totally negligent. Either they did not have the knowledge and capacity or that they were inclined to corruption. Though there is now an improvement in health and safety standards in the garments manufacturing sector, the claim does not encompass all factories. As such, the risk still remains because another unfortunate incident in any factory or establishment can dent a big crack in the hard-built image. While the concentration of improving the health and safety standards was in the garments sector, there are other sectors such as ship-building, metal manufacturing, river and road transportation, housing etc, which are also vulnerable. The conditions in the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are the worst. Most of these establishments in particular are totally ignorant about the safety standards. Moreover, they do not have the capacity to reform, besides not having the means to bear the necessary costs for the purpose. In such cases, the concerned authorities should embark upon preparing and enforcing strict guidelines. For costs, the banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions can come forward in funding the necessary action programmes as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. Proper health and safety standards are the fundamental rights of every one and the domain of these standards is applicable everywhere – homes, roads, offices, mines, factories, schools, parks, playfields etc. While guidelines are important, it is also important to have awareness, attitude and responsibility to be healthy and safe. As the Rana Plaza tragedy is being commemorated and the World Day for Safety and Health at Work is being observed on coming Thursday, let everyone fasten the belt to develop a safety culture in society.