Wal-Mart finds safety problems in Bangladesh factories

Young women work at a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. CBS/Justine Redman

(MoneyWatch) In the wake of a series of factory disasters and deaths in Bangladesh this year, Wal-Mart (WMT) announced that it found safety issues in at least 32 of the 200 factories it does business with in that country. The company reportedly said that all but two of the factories addressed the issues in question.

However, some examination of the actual reports suggests that the company still has a problem. Out of the first 75 reports made public by Wal-Mart, many factories, although given passing grades by a third-party inspector, are just barely above the failure mark either in electrical or building safety.

Bangladesh, a major location for outsourced textile and clothing manufacturing for western companies, has seen a series of disasters that have cost the lives of many garment workers, including more than 1,100 in April, according to Human Rights Watch. The organization said that the most recent incident, an October fabric mill fire, killed seven in part because fire control systems reportedly did not work correctly.

Wal-Mart used a firm called Bureau Veritas to undertake safety inspections.

Passing, but just barely

A closer examination of the first 75 factory reports offers a more complicated story. Bureau Veritas examined both electrical and building safety, and assigned each a letter grade, with A representing the lowest percentage of safety risk and D, the highest. There were two rounds of inspections. Each factory was given a chance to raise its grade between the two.

In second round of the reports, 37 factories still had a grade of C -- the lowest possible passing grade -- in either electrical, building, or both. The latter, building, was most frequently the source of the lower grade. Only four factories of the 75 achieved an A in building safety. None of the factories had an A in electrical safety. Thirty-four factories made no improvement in either electrical or building safety, although all of them had room for improvement and only three of them had a B in each category. This examination suggests that Wal-Mart has significant challenges to see worker safety reach levels that might be assumed acceptable by western standards.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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