300 Bangladesh garment factories may be unsafe

Debris of a collapsed garment factory in the Rana Plaza complex in Savar near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 10, 2013.

DHAKA, Bangladesh Bangladeshi garment factories are routinely built without consulting engineers. Many are located in commercial or residential buildings not designed to withstand the stress of heavy manufacturing. Some add illegal extra floors atop support columns too weak to hold them, according to a survey of scores of factories by an engineering university that was shown to The Associated Press.

A separate inspection, by the garment industry, of 200 risky factories found that 10 percent of them were so dangerous that they were ordered to shut. The textiles minister said a third inspection, conducted by the government, could show that as many as 300 factories were unsafe.

Taken together, the findings offer the first broad look at just how unsafe the working conditions are for the garment workers who produce clothing for major western brands. And it's more bad news for the $20 billion industry that has been struggling to regain the confidence of Western retailers and consumers following a November fire at the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory that killed 112 people and the April collapse of the Rana Plaza building that killed 1,129 people in the worst garment industry tragedy. But the proliferation of inspections could signal the industry is finally taking its workers' safety seriously.

Rana Plaza was "a wakeup call for everybody" to ensure their buildings were structurally sound, said Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

"Earlier it was not in our minds. We never, ever thought of this," he said.

To get a candid view of conditions in Bangladesh's garment factories, CBS News correspondent Holly Williams and her crew posed as garment buyers in Dhaka, telling factory managers they wanted to source clothes as cheaply as possible. Her series of exclusive reports showed dozens of factory workers who appeared to be well below the age of 18, and conditions which posed a significant danger to the staff.

In one four-storey facility, CBS News found hardly any fire extinguishers -- but there were signs on walls marking where they should have been. In another, exporting denim clothes to Europe, Williams saw young workers giving jeans a fashionable "distressed" look by spraying them with potassium permanganate -- a toxic substance that can cause damage to the nervous system. Some of the young workers were wearing no protective clothing.

Nor was the Rana Plaza the first factory building to collapse in Bangladesh. In 2005, the Spectrum sweater factory crumbled on top of workers, killing 64. That building was also found to have illegal additions.

After the Rana collapse, the government and the garment manufacturers asked the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology to begin evaluating the buildings. The university formed 15 teams of two engineers each — a structural expert and a foundation expert — to conduct initial inspections, examining a building's support columns, frame, foundation and the soil it was built on, said Mujibur Rahman, head of the university's department of civil engineering.

Rahman said further tests using sophisticated equipment will be completed in the coming months.

AP was shown initial results of some of the inspections of about 200 buildings — many of them garment factories — on condition the factories not be identified. The owners volunteered their buildings for inspection — even paying for the surveys — a decision that suggests they are among the more safety conscious in the industry. The remainder of the country's 4,000 garment factories could be worse, said Rahman.

While initial inspections showed that many of the factories appeared safe, some had problems so serious that engineers recommended they be immediately shut down. Others were told to seal off the illegal floors at the tops of their buildings and gingerly remove the heavy equipment stored there.

`'There were buildings that we found that were really critical and we asked them to immediately vacate those buildings," Rahman said.

The engineers found that huge numbers of the factories were housed in commercial or residential buildings not designed to withstand the vibrations and heavy loads of industrial use, Rahman said. Machinery vibrations were blamed as one of the causes along with additional illegal floors as the cause of the Rana collapse.

Most of the examined buildings did not have structural tests dating back to their construction, and it was `'very rare" that an engineer supervised construction, Rahman said.

They found a building approved for only six stories that had been expanded to 10. Support columns that were supposed to have five steel bars inside them had only two. Other columns were too small to support the structures. Some of the buildings had structural cracks that threatened their integrity.

In one report, the engineers found structural cracks on two columns and a heavy power generator located on the roof, where its vibrations could threaten the building's integrity. They recommended sealing all the floors above the ground floor pending a more thorough assessment. Rahman said he told the owners it would be safer just to demolish the building and start over.

A five-story factory had 30-centimeter by 12-inch by-12 inch structural columns that did not appear strong enough to handle the load. The engineers called for sealing the top floor until the building could be strengthened.