Hesperian Health Guides

Be prepared in case of fire

Many lives can be saved if factories have:

  • fire alarms that make a loud noise so everyone will know a fire has started. Workers in one part of a building may not see or smell a fire in another part until the fire is large. An alarm can also wake workers sleeping in a dormitory in the same or nearby buildings. Make sure alarms are checked regularly and that their batteries still work.
  • exits that open outward and are always unlocked when people are in the building. Exits should be well-lit and marked with signs. In a multiple story building where stairs are the way out, stairways need to be well-lit, wide, and strong enough so workers can exit safely.
a woman speaking
Practicing how to get out of the factory or dormitory quickly and safely, and where to meet outside, helps keep people from panicking if there is a real fire. Organize a "fire drill" in your factory.
  • open passageways that lead directly to exits. Passageways should be at least 1 meter wide, and even wider for large work areas. It is very important to keep passageways clear and free from boxes, racks, and containers.
a worker putting out a fire on a small pile of material near an electrical cord.
A fire extinguisher can put out a small fire quickly.
Point the spray at the base of the fire.
  • an overhead sprinkler system with smoke detector, water pipes, and plenty of water. The sprinklers should start automatically when a fire starts.
  • fire extinguishers should be provided by the factory. They should be well-marked and easy to reach, checked regularly, and replaced when expired. Fire extinguishers let you put out a small fire quickly and prevent it from spreading. Water buckets usually do not hold enough water to put out a fire and it is dangerous to put water on electrical, chemical, or grease fires.

Make sure all workers know how to use a fire extinguisher. When you use a fire extinguisher, make sure the fire is on one side of you and the exit on the other, so you will not be trapped if you cannot put the fire out. Use role plays to practice fighting a fire.

Fires need 3 things:

  • a flame, spark, or something hot to start the fire
  • fuel (materials) to burn
  • oxygen to keep the fire burning

When you remove or block one of the things a fire needs, a fire cannot burn. It is important to know about and practice ways of stopping a fire, but also practice how you can get out of the factory quickly if a fire starts.

Factory fires: Preventable disasters

New York 1911

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On March 25, 1911 about 500 immigrant women were working in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City, USA, when a fire started. They tried to escape, but the doors were locked. The fire escape was so weak, it collapsed. Other workers tried to escape the flames by jumping out windows 9 floors above the street. In just 25 minutes, 146 women workers died.

The Triangle fire made people realize how unsafe factories were, and workers’ organizations in the USA pressured the government to pass and enforce fire safety laws.

Bangkok 1993

On May 10, 1993 a fire broke out in a storage area of the Kader toy factory in Bangkok, Thailand. The building’s fire alarm did not sound and workers were told to keep working so they could finish an order. The fire spread quickly. Workers had been locked in to force them to work overtime, and there were no fire exits or fire extinguishers.

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188 workers were killed and hundreds more injured. The survivors and the victims’ families used their anger and sadness to fight for safety and helped form ANROEV, the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims.

Dhaka 2012

On November 24, 2012 more than 100 people were killed when fire raged through the Tazreen factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which was making clothing behind locked doors for Walmart and other brands. Only a few months earlier, a Walmart representative had told the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association that it cost too much to put fire safety systems in garment factories.

Workers will continue to die in preventable factory fires until local factories and the big international brands that purchase from them place as much value on workers’ lives as they do on low prices and high profits.

This page was updated:28 Feb 2021