KONABARI, Bangladesh (Reuters) - A boiler explosion at a Bangladeshi garment plant near the city of Dhaka killed 10 people and injured dozens, emergency workers said on Tuesday, the latest industrial tragedy to hit one of the world's biggest garment producers.
The blast, late on Monday, occurred at a plant operated by local Bangladeshi firm Multifabs while maintenance work was going on, company and fire brigade officials said.
The explosion at the boiler, located in a tin-roofed shed, partially damaged a nearby three-storey factory building.
"I heard a big bang when I was having tea outside," factory driver Hafiz Mostafa said, as dozens thronged the factory site and firefighters moved rubble in search of missing persons. "I saw windows, doors, glasses, machinery and a section of the wall of the building go flying."
Families scoured the scene for missing people. The plant had been shut for 10 days for Eid holidays at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and was being readied to resume operations on Tuesday, when the accident occurred.
"We're looking for my brother. We checked all the hospitals, but have not found him," said Nazim Uddin, whose brother Ershad Ullah worked as an electrician at the plant for the last decade.
Multifabs has many clients in Europe, its website says.
The company started operating in 1992 and reached $70 million in exports in 2016. Its top buyers include fashion chain Lindex, which is part of Finland's Stockmann, German supermarket chain Aldi, and Rexholm of Denmark, Faruqui said.
The company said the plant was functioning well and the six-year-old boiler, procured from Germany, had just been serviced.
"The boiler was running well," Mahiuddin Faruqui, Multifab's chairman told Reuters. "After servicing when workers were trying to restart it, it went off."
Firefighter Faruk Hussain said a body had been retrieved from the rubble in the morning and that the search was still on for more victims.
Bangladesh's roughly $28 billion garment sector, the biggest in the world after China, employs 4 million people and generates about 80 percent of the country's export earnings.
It came under scrutiny after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in 2013 that killed more than 1,100 people, and a fire at a garment factory in 2012 that killed 112 workers.
The Rana Plaza disaster sparked demands for greater safety and put the onus to act on foreign companies sourcing clothing from Bangladesh.
A spokeswoman for Stockmann said it was investigating the disaster, but was still seeking more information.
She said Stockmann is a member of the industry body Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI), and that said Multifabs had cleared a BSCI audit in May 2016 that was valid for two years.
Lindex said Multifabs was one of its main suppliers and said it was monitoring the situation.
The Multifabs site hurt by the blast made 100,000 garments a day, generated around $6 million of revenue a month and employed about 6,000 workers, said Mesba Faruqui, factory and operations director in the family-run business.
Two international coalitions were formed after Rana Plaza to help fund improvements to building and fire safety at thousands of garment factories across Bangladesh.
One of the coalitions, signatories to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, inspected the Multifabs site in 2015 and noted among numerous concerns that Multifabs' boiler was not separated by fire-rated construction.
As of last week, however, the Accord's updated corrective plan on the facility listed that issue as having been corrected.
But the coalition itself does not inspect boilers, which are monitored by the Bangladesh government.
Bangladesh's chief boiler inspector Mohammad Abdul Mannan said his department had inspected the Multifabs' boiler a year ago and that the next inspection had been due this month.
Sulav Chowdhury, chief executive of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, of which Multifabs is a member, said the industry had gone through a "huge shift" since the Rana Plaza disaster.
"There has been structural change, and we've worked hard for it," he said. "So I'd say this is a stray incident."
Still, critics say more work needs to be done.
"There is still an enormous amount to be done to improve safety in the Bangaldeshi garment industry" said the IndustriALL Global Union, a signatory to the Bangladesh Accord and a member of the Steering Committee.
It added that union signatories to the Accord would demand that it be expanded swiftly to include boiler safety.
Additional reporting by Serajul Quadir in DHAKA, Krishna N. Das in NEW DELHI, Promit Mukherjee, Abhirup Roy, Zeba Siddique and Euan Rocha in MUMBAI; Tuomas Forsell in HELSINKI; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani and Euan Rocha; Editing by Paul Tait and Gareth Jones