Bangladesh engineers find garment factory flaws

DHAKA (AFP) - Only one in 10 garment factory buildings inspected by engineers from a top Bangladesh university were structurally sound, underlining the scale of safety problems for the world's second-biggest clothes producer, the head engineer said on Friday.

Building owners rushed to request engineers check their buildings in the wake of the collapse of the nine-storey garment factory building in April that killed 1,129 people, Bangladesh's worst industrial disaster.

Six buildings, housing garment factories, have been cleared as structurally sound after being inspected by the country's prestigious Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).

Structural flaws, ranging from minor to severe, were discovered at another 60 buildings near the capital Dhaka, including two that could collapse at any moment, Mohammad Mujibur Rahman, head of BUET's civil engineering department, told AFP.

"Of the 66, we found only six buildings to be perfect and without any noticeable distress or deviation," said Mr Rahman, whose final report into the inspections will be handed to officials in coming days.

The team of engineers checked the foundations as well as the pillars and other support structures of buildings and also inspected documents and plans.

He said his team had requested that two buildings, housing multiple garment plants, be shut down immediately after cracks were discovered, similar to those found at the Rana Plaza, one day before it collapsed.

"We've also asked the owners of another four structures to conduct detailed structural analysis immediately, possibly by tomorrow, as they have major structural problems," said Rahman, a professor who teaches civil engineering at the university.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza highlighted appalling safety issues at Bangladesh's 4,500 garment factories whose workers churn out clothes for the world's leading Western retailers.

Many of the buildings were thrown up quickly, sometimes without consulting engineers, to house factories for the garment industry, the mainstay of the Bangladesh economy, accounting for 80 percent of the country's US$25 billion (S$32 billion) annual exports.

The 66 garment factories were among 102 buildings that the engineering team inspected, upon request, including banks and private businesses. Many did not have design plans, drawings or records of construction for the team to inspect.

About 40 percent of the total buildings inspected "have significant cracks and distress" but do not impose any immediate danger, with more detailed analysis to be carried out in the next three months, he said.

"The rest, 60 percent, have minor distress or deviations, that don't have any structural significance," he said.

A report on the inspections will be handed to the state-run development authority, which has the power to order improvements to the buildings or shut them down, he said.

Bangladesh government has embarked on a major inspection drive of its own, deploying dozens of teams to probe the factories in an effort to reassure worried retailers.

Garment industry bosses as well as the government have been trying to persuade Western fashion firms not to move production out of Bangladesh in the wake of the disaster.

Fearing a consumer backlash, many Western retailers have since launched their own monitoring of Bangladesh's factories, including of fire safety conditions.