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City planner bound for Bangladesh

Focus on building safety after factory tragedies

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A Winnipeg man has been tasked with ensuring the safety of garment workers half a world away.

Brad Loewen, a staffer in the City of Winnipeg's planning, property and development department, has been named the chief safety inspector by the Accord of Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The 56-year-old will head to the South Asian country next month, where he'll begin the mammoth project of not only setting new building standards and safety codes in the derelict clothing factories, but enforcing them.

"It will be a lot of work, but it's something that I take a great deal of interest in," Loewen said from his office Tuesday, wrapping up his final days as an city administrator of commercial-plan examination and inspections.

'It will be a lot of work, but it's something that I take a great deal of interest in' -- Brad Loewen

Calling the position a "key fire-protection engineering role in the world," Loewen will also be responsible for hiring a team of building inspectors to monitor approximately 1,700 clothing factories that employ more than two million workers.

The accord, an agreement between 100-plus manufacturers/brands and international unions to addresses the numerous safety and workplace issues facing workers in the garment industry in Bangladesh, was signed in May, less than a month after the Rana Plaza factory building collapse that killed 1,129 people.

The movement to address the unsafe working conditions was already underway in the aftermath of a deadly fire in a factory near Dhaka in November 2012 (120 were killed; the investigation afterwards determined there weren't enough fire exits). The Rana Plaza tragedy simply accelerated the process, Loewen said.

"The whole accord is very much a response to that," he said. "The different brands and different organizations have tried to address the situation, but what happened at Rana Plaza really focused everyone.

"Certainly everyone is taking it very seriously and there seems to be a lot of goodwill from everyone involved. I don't have any cynicism about the motives of anyone involved. Everyone understands that the way things were done is unacceptable."

Earlier this month, a fire at another garment factory in Dhaka killed 10 people.

Monika Kemperle, a spokeswoman for the IndustriALL Global Union (one of the larger international unions associated with the accord), spoke highly of Loewen and his appointment as the chief safety inspector.

"Brad Loewen's task is central to all that we want to achieve," she said in a statement. "Under his experienced leadership, the accord will establish and apply safety standards to all factories that supply to accord member brands. It is a mammoth task but one in which Brad will have the capacity and authority to make decisions that will make direct, positive impacts upon the safety of Bangladeshi garment workers."

Fire and building safety has been on Loewen's hot plate most of his life. Starting as a firefighter in Steinbach 40 years ago, he later earned a degree in fire-protection engineering from the University of Maryland before taking up various roles in fire safety in all three levels of Canadian government. But this will be an entirely new challenge, the likes of which he hasn't seen in his 21/2 years working for the City of Winnipeg. How he addresses the structural, electrical and fire-code violations in a region where standards were long ignored or authorities made due with half-measures will be open to scrutiny -- the expectation and pressure of a quick fix is there -- but Loewen is up to it.

"How it's delivered is the scrutiny that I'm going to have to live with," he said. "The real transparency will be with the actual findings and the actions taken. The transparency is paramount to the whole thing working and no doubt we will have some attention from the media and interested parties.

"I can't concern myself with the scrutiny. My focus is the workers in the factories and trying to make a safer place for everyone."

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 23, 2013 B2

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