Three disasters come to mind as I read about the building collapse in Dhaka, India.
Actually more, but the other two come to mind more than the others.
The first is the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911 that killed 146 workers.
The second is the World Trade Center disaster of September 11, 2001.
Dhaka is the third.
An earthquake caused buildings to collapse in Turkey on Oct. 232, 2011.
An earthquake collapsed buildings in Greece in June of 2008..
While neither of these events relates directly to a man-made disaster, it is likely both could have been prevented.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
From the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire at http://history1900s.about.com/od/1910s/p/trianglefire.htm:
“On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started on the eighth floor. Work had ended at 4:30 that day and most of the workers were gathering their belongings and their paychecks when a cutter noticed a small fire had started in his scrap bin. No one is sure what exactly started the fire, but a fire marshal thought a cigarette butt had possibly gotten tossed into the bin. Nearly everything in the room was flammable: hundreds of pounds of cotton scraps, tissue paper patterns, and wooden tables.
“Several workers threw pails of water on the fire, but it quickly grew out of control. Workers then tried to use the fire hoses that were available on each floor, for one last attempt to put out the fire; however, when they turned the water valve on, no water came out.
“Everyone rushed to escape the fire. Some ran to the four elevators. Built to carry a maximum of 15 people each, they quickly filled with 30. There wasn't time for many trips to the bottom and back up before the fire reached the elevator shafts as well. Others ran to the fire escape. Though about 20 reached the bottom successfully, about 25 others died when the fire escape buckled and collapsed.
“At 4:45 p.m., the fire department was alerted to the fire. They rushed to the scene, raised their ladder, but it only reached to the sixth floor. Those on the window ledges started jumping.”
Editorial interjection. Note that “a cutter noticed a small fire had started in his scrap bin.” Had anyone been trained, the fire might have been smothered and no lives would have been lost. Lest anyone miss the point, all hands awareness and safety training is not only important, it can save lives; include it in all risk management plans (no matter what the plans are called).
World Trade Center
While the world knows who is responsible for the collapse of the World Trade Center towers that cost the lives of more than 3000 men and women, the death toll might have been reduced if a number of risk management concerns were addressed.
An aside. The twin towers were not the only buildings destroyed or severely damaged. According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_11_attacks),
“Along with the 110-floor Twin Towers, numerous other buildings at the World Trade Center site were destroyed or badly damaged, including WTC buildings 3 through 7 and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. The North Tower, South Tower, the Marriott Hotel (3 WTC) and 7 WTC were completely destroyed. The U.S. Customs House (6 World Trade Center), 4 World Trade Center, 5 World Trade Center, and both pedestrian bridges connecting buildings were severely damaged. The Deutsche Bank Building on 130 Liberty Street was partially damaged and demolished later. The two buildings of the World Financial Center also suffered damage.
As with the Shirtwaist Factory, the building was too tall for fire equipment to reach the upper floors. Helicopter evacuation was impossible because of smoke, updrafts, and multiple antennae on the roofs. According to the Wikipedia entry, ibid., the exit doors to the roof were locked in any event.
Unlike the Shirtwaist Factory, personal awareness by people in the buildings would not have saved lives. Better interdepartmental communications might have prevented the attacks in the first place, but that is “beyond the scope” of the average risk manager.
There have been reports that evacuation exercises DID pay off for many, but the Towers’ design and construction was less than desirable for total-building evacuation.
Like the Shirtwaist Factory, the Rana Plaza that collapsed on Wednesday, April 25, 2013 was primarily used for clothing manufacture.
UNLIKE the Shirtwaist Factory, the Rana Plaza was falling apart; cracks has been observed and, according to a BBC article headlined Dhaka building collapse: Owner Mohammed Sohel Rana held (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22328566). “Police said officials had ordered an evacuation of the building on Tuesday after cracks appeared, but that the factories ignored them and were operating the next day.”
In addition to Rana, six people, including three factory owners and two engineers, have now been arrested.
As with the Shirtwaist Factory, greed seems to be the underlying factor. Given the poverty in Dhaka at the time of the incident, it is unlikely any workers would have refused to enter the workplace, although there is an indication in a related BBC piece that the cracks were obvious to the workers.
In the second BBC piece ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22275597), it reported that “Cracks had been found in the building prior to the collapse, but owners told workers not to worry.
“Building collapses are common in Bangladesh where Dhaka is located. Speaking at the scene, Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir said the building had violated construction codes and ‘he culprits would be punished’."
Given the events in Dhaka there is little a risk manager could do to prevent the incident. However, if the companies occupying the Rana Plaza were manufacturing product for a U.S. organization, a risk manager engaged by the U.S. organization could have alerted the U.S. operation and it might have pressured the vendor to protect the workers.
If any American firm can be linked to the Rana Plaza disaster, that firm will take a serious reputational hit and may even lose some short-term business. That brings the Dhaka tragedy into a risk manager’s “scope.”
The bottom line for risk management practitioners is that, alone, they
- Might have prevented the Shirtwaist Factory disaster
- Might have influenced the vendors housed in the Rana Plaza
The problems associated with “9-11” are government issues and “out of scope” for all but government risk management personnel; even then politics probably would have prevented any improvements in inter-department cooperation at the federal and at the city levels.
All the disasters are history. All could have been prevented. The best we can do now is learn from others’ mistakes and try to prevent a recurrence for the organizations that engage our expertise.