Factory Fires: All Too Common in South Asia

How FM Global is fighting fire one building code at a time


The International Codes and Standards Group, like all at FM Global, is in it for the long term. As our current and future clients establish themselves in emerging markets, the building codes and standards they encounter could have an adverse effect on their risk profile. Our job is to influence and elevate those standards wherever necessary to help our policyholders build or maintain a strong risk profile. In this way, we contribute to the long-term value that FM Global, as a mutual company, offers its clients.

Download the FM Global International Codes and Standards 2016 Report


Across South Asia, a growing chronicle of disasters underscores the need for stronger safety regulations and building codes, better enforcement and, in particular, the wider use of sprinklers—a cause FM Global has shown can prevent losses.

From the hot desert winds of the Arabian Sea to the ever-humid alluvial territory that fringes the Bay of Bengal, economic growth is evident nearly everywhere across what has sometimes been described as the Indian "subcontinent." Countries, such as India itself, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have, to varying degrees, embraced manufacturing and become powerful players on the world stage, vaulting into leadership positions in many industries.

But unfortunately, rapid growth often outpaces established loss prevention and safety capabilities. Today, many production facilities remain substandard in terms of property protection, often shockingly so; and when a tragedy strikes, the incident becomes global news within minutes (see timeline at bottom).

"The facts demonstrate that there is a problem, and our job continues to be to improve the understanding of the need for sprinklers and to support the development, expansion and enforcement of relevant codes and standards," notes Sumit Khanna, an FM Global international codes and standards (ICS) consultant in Bangalore, India. Together with other members of FM Global's ICS team, Khanna collects and presents data, forms strategic alliances with research facilities, government agencies and fire service organizations, and works to change public opinion in the world's major areas of industrial development and urbanization.

One major challenge is the relatively limited experience with sprinklers, where design and maintenance issues within the region often prevent sprinklers from operating effectively. Organizations are rarely required to invest in sprinklers and, under pressure to keep costs to a minimum, often defer the necessary investments. In some instances, sprinklers are treated almost as ornamentation—something necessary to acquire a certificate but installed without consideration for hydraulic issues and thus likely to be ineffective when needed. FM Global is a vocal advocate, not just for sprinklers, but for newer, more efficient sprinkler designs, correct installation practices, and for policies that will encourage their adoption.

As described below, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh have their own distinct codes and requirements for fire and natural hazards, particularly when it comes to their sprinkler enforcement practices.

India is nothing if not diverse. Its 29 states each lead in approving and implementing codes and standards in their own region. Some have lagged and others are quite advanced in their practices. According to the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (IRDAI), in 2012 and 2013, some 73 percent of fire insurance premiums were generated by just eight states: Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

However, while insurance is certainly an important indicator and a commendable aspect of protecting business, it is only part of the picture. While fire sprinklers offer tremendous potential benefits, as proven in installations worldwide, in that regard, practice in India still leaves much to be desired.

As another example of the scope of the problem, according to data on the Indian insurance industry, in 2015 and 2016, claims from fire alone totaled some US$550 million (INR36 billion) across the country. These are direct claims paid by insurers in India. The value of uninsured losses and broader societal costs would undoubtedly push the total impact of fire damage far higher.

Still, the National Building Code of India (NBC), a model code of the Bureau of Indian Standards, provides guidelines for regulating building construction across the country. The NBC has been adopted in part by many of the states mentioned above along with local fire safety acts (which often have their own distinct names) that are then implemented through local authorities having jurisdiction. There are a total of 129 standards that the NBC refers to for various provisions. The 2016 NBC, published in March of this year, includes many improvements, such as stronger sprinkler provisions that further fire loss prevention efforts.

Sri Lanka
Fire safety regulations in Sri Lanka present a mixed picture. On paper, they appear to be a solid foundation, but in practice, they become more problematic.

For example, before a structure can be occupied, owners need a Certificate of Conformity from the local government. Businesses need an additional review by a local fire department. However, while there is a requirement for yearly renewals, there is no provision for routine inspections to ensure a facility remains safe. In fact, for the most part, the oversight and inspectional aspects of fire safety are absent.

In Sri Lanka it is the Construction Industry Development Authority (CIDA) that is responsible for developing fire safety regulations. The current regulations were updated in 2004. Reportedly, a committee is currently considering updates to regulations, including the imposition of a yearly fire inspection requirement. The existing CIDA regulations categorize buildings primarily by height: buildings 59 feet (18 meters) and below, 59 – 98 feet (18 – 30 meters), 98 – 148 feet (30 – 45 meters), and above 148 feet (45 meters). As with other geographies and jurisdictions, the principal concern addressed by the categories is the limits of fire service equipment, which make it imperative that taller buildings include more features, such as sprinklers and hydrants.

Electrical safety issues are also not yet fully addressed. Due to inadequate wiring standards, electrical faults reportedly rank as the largest single ignition source for fires in Sri Lanka.

On a positive note, the Western Region Megapolis Planning Project, an ambitious effort to create a huge new city not far from Colombo, is generating numerous planning documents that stress the need for state-of-the-art practices. Implicit is the idea that more advanced fire safety regulations should be incorporated into the effort.

The most current version of the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) dates to 2006. The code continues to be developed by the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. However, according to a recent report prepared by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (a group formed in the wake of several high-profile workplace disasters), it is not updated on any particular schedule and the process by which it is shaped is not open to scrutiny. On its own, the Alliance has developed and adopted the Alliance Fire Safety and Structural Integrity Standard for member factories. This standard is based on the BNBC but includes additional requirements. The NFPA report recommends that Bangladesh adopt a consensus approach to developing and updating codes and standards with a clear process for periodic updates.

According to the NFPA report, there is little in the BNBC that regulates either use or occupancy with regard to fire safety. Nor is there a relevant fire prevention code for existing buildings. Not surprisingly, the NFPA has recommended the establishment of such codes and suggests that the work of the Alliance could be a basis for such action.

The "Wild West" of South Asia may be Pakistan, at least in terms of its minimalist approach to regulation and fire protection. According to a published report, the Human Resource Development Minister of the country has stated that "there is no independent legislation on occupational safety and health issues in Pakistan." Inspections by government agencies can appear to be ineffective, in part because the task is often subcontracted and may be subject to various kinds of fraud and misrepresentation. Despite some large fires and other serious mishaps, the country's need for revenue from industry stands as the immediate roadblock to government action. Changes to fire protection and other property protection and life safety measures are seen primarily as adding cost.

Taking the lead
From an FM Global perspective, the South Asia situation is a glass half empty or half full, depending on one's perspective. Christopher Wieczorek, vice president, manager of ICS for FM Global, notes that so many of the costly tragedies that have afflicted the region's industrial facilities could have been avoided or ameliorated if sprinklers and other safety measures had been in place. On the other hand, FM Global is actively at work in the region encouraging government agencies to adopt more progressive codes and standards, while also working with individual enterprises to avoid losses through those same kinds of modest investments.

"We see many companies looking at this issue and beginning to understand the importance of investing in sprinklers as part of their business risk management and safety efforts. This is for the long term, for the short term and for their people," says Wieczorek.

A Litany of Woes

Even a partial list of industrial fires makes daunting reading. These very substantial losses made headlines for their impact on India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

2016 (December) Nagpur, India
A blast and subsequent chemical fire rocked a dryer unit at a pharmaceutical plant. Prior to the event, which resulted in multiple casualties, authorities had cited the operation for a number of operational violations. Explosions continued for hours and multiple structures were involved.

2016 (September) Dhaka, Bangladesh
A blast and subsequent fire damaged a packaging factory. Several potential sources for the fire, which killed more than 30 workers, have been suggested, but no definitive cause has been found.

2016 (February) Hyderabad, India
A fire and explosion in a pharmaceutical plant began in a reactor unit, reportedly due to an imbalance in heat management. In addition to extensive property damage, six workers were killed.

2015 (January) Dhaka, Bangladesh
A fire in a plastics factory caused severe damage to the facility and killed 13 workers.

2014 (May) Central Madhya Pradesh, India
A massive blaze in a firecracker workshop killed 15 people.

2013 (November) New Delhi, India
A fire at a factory where leather bags were being stitched killed six workers, some of whom were trapped in the building.

2013 (October) Sripur, (north of Dhaka), Bangladesh
A fire at a textile mill killed at least seven workers. A cause for the blaze was not determined.

2012 (November) Dhaka, Bangladesh
A garment factory caught fire. Some theories have blamed an electrical failure at the plant; others suggest arson as the culprit. Either way, more than 100 died in the nine-story building and the fire raged for approximately 17 hours.

2012 (September) Karachi, Pakistan
A fire at a textile factory, a facility reportedly packed with inflammable materials, raged for 15 hours, killing hundreds of workers, many of whom were locked in the structure and unable to escape.

2012 (September) Lahore, Pakistan
A shoe component factory set up in a residential structure with a single entrance, caught fire, killing approximately 25 people, including the owner, and injuring many others. According to reports, the blaze likely started with an electrical problem in a generator and quickly spread to several drums containing inflammable chemicals. The facility was completely destroyed.

2012 (July) Gujarat, India
A Kadi manufacturing facility experienced a major fire, which put "unit number 2" out of service at the site. There were no injuries.

2012 (July) Ahmedabad, India
A food processing facility was shut down after a fire. The facility, located on 55 acres (22 hectares) of land, had only been put into service in April. It had contracts with 10,000 farmers.

2012 (June) Amritsar, India
A major fire at a paper mill required the presence of fire engines to extinguish as well as assistance from the armed forces. The fire covered eight of the 100 acres (three of the 40 hectares) at the facility, which at the time housed 70,000 tons (64,000 tonnes) of newsprint. The fire took more than two days to fully extinguish. The same facility suffered a similar, though less extensive, fire in 2015.

Download the FM Global International Codes and Standards 2016 Report