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Social Accountability International (SAI) is a non-profit, multi-stakeholder organization established to advance the human rights of workers by promoting decent work conditions, labor rights, and corporate social responsibility through voluntary standards and capacity building.
Fire Safety & Prevention: Interview with Dundar Sahin
Joleen Ong: Emergency and disaster relief can be emotionally and physically tough - how did you first get involved with AKUT?
Dundar Sahin: "I'm interested in this work because it touches people's lives- it gives me great motivation. In 1997, I was a student at Istanbul University. I liked the outdoors, especially climbing and diving. However, if you had an issue or got stuck, there were no professionals in Turkey who could help you. At best, maybe the military would send someone, but they might not have the skills you need to get out safely. I joined AKUT to be part of a network. AKUT had just been established a year earlier, and at the time, it was more like a network of university students - if something went wrong we just called each other up.
That same year, a university professor recommended that we focus on earthquake rescue training since Istanbul is prone to them. That idea had not even occurred to us. After that we started to get trained by professionals from the UK, US and Wales. Then in 1999, the big earthquake hit Turkey and killed 20,000 people. AKUT's network was small, only 60 people, but we were able to save 220 lives under collapsed structures. AKUT became a national hero after that, and after we joined the UN's International Search and Rescue Advisory Group [INSARAG], and helped with the recovery efforts after disasters in Greece, India, Thailand, Haiti, Pakistan and Japan.
Later, I trained at the SOLO Wilderness and Disaster Medicine School in New Hampshire, and then worked for the Azerbaijan International Operating Company as their Emergency Coordinator. In 2007, I became AKUT's Training Manager and set up an institute for emergency and disaster management, where we focus on training and research for emergency planning in various industries, including steel, glass, telecommunications, textiles and aviation."
JO: You were in Pakistan in November doing an assessment of 17 SA8000 certified factories in Lahore, Sialkot, Karachi and Faisalabad. Can you tell us more about your experience on the ground?
DS: "People were surprised of course because it was unannounced, but we had to let the factories know that it wasn't an audit, it was an assessment for fact finding purposes. But whether it is announced or unannounced, health and safety standards cannot be complied with overnight, for example you can't re-do a fire escape in one day. We saw everything as it occurs normally, it was just a snapshot.
It was sometimes hard to get around - we got lost in the SITE industrial area in Karachi [Sindh Industrial Trading Estate (SITE)]. We had to visit four factories in that area. The addresses were a mess and the map we were using kept bringing us to the wrong place. So we spoke with some local people, and they showed us a map that had been drawn on a wall with charcoal that was near a bus stop. It was the most innovative map I have ever seen and it helped us to locate the factories. All of the numbers on the map were of the different factories." [See photo above]
JO: Tell us one situation that stood out for you
DS: "At one factory, I passed two individuals sitting on a table. I stopped and asked them who they were, and it turns out they were the electrical technicians in the factory. They were fixing a lamp and the electrical circuits. Electrical circuits are a huge problem in these factories in Pakistan, they can be so weak and dangerous - usually the main cause of fires, so this was an important discussion we came across.
We spent some time with them and explained how flecks of dust in electrical circuits can cause sparks and can start huge fires in a second. They didn't know that, neither did the management! One of my team members from AKUT is an expert on logistics, and showed them how to do safe wiring and how to make safe connections. We saw that they started to fix things that way."
JO: Based on your experience - in general, what are the top three ways that fires could be prevented?
DS: "The biggest problem is awareness at all staff levels in a factory. Second is control - such as government to enforce laws- it is quite weak. These two are huge - knowledge and control. If you can just establish awareness - for example at the executive level you have awareness trainings and commitment, mid-level managers you train on technical skills [such as the example in the previous question about safe wiring], and workers you train on awareness and disaster planning. This is really important.
The third is a design problem. Push-bar fire exit doors like you see in the U.S. are not common in Pakistan, and doors are often locked with padlocks. The exits can also act like a chimney in a house, so if there is a fire, the air will feed in from the ground and make the fire even bigger. The good thing is, with occupational health and safety, compared to the other elements of SA8000 such as remuneration, it is the least expensive to prepare for, and these can all be resolved faster than other issues."
JO: What about the government? Has the Ali Enterprises tragedy spurred any changes in the labor laws?
DS: "Earlier this month on December 6, the ILO convened a meeting that included government officials and stakeholders to set up new roles and regulations, it focused on health and safety. I was in Bangladesh at the time, so I could not attend but the joint action plan that came out of it is due for release next month." [Ambreen Waheed, Executive Director of the Responsible Business Initiative in Pakistan attended the event on behalf of SAI.]
For more information about the AKUT investigation, and about the Ali Enterprises tragedy, please visit www.sa-intl.org/alienterprises. To learn more about AKUT, visit www.akut.org.tr/eng/historical.asp, or visit Mr. Sahin's website at www.dundarsahin.com.