A garment factory fire in Bangladesh has killed 112 workers. The incident bears a striking resemblance to a famous fire in the U.S. 101 years ago that kicked off the workplace safety movement in this country.
The fire on Nov. 24 at Tazreen Fashions Ltd.’s plant in Savar, Bangladesh, trapped 100 workers inside the building where they died. Another 12 people died at hospitals after jumping from the building. About 100 more workers were injured and treated at hospitals.
Accounts of what happened, as reported by various news agencies, include the following:
- When the fire alarm first went off, workers were told by their supervisors to go back to work — the alarm was just malfunctioning
- An exit door was locked from the outside, and
- Fire extinguishers didn’t work.
Workers jumped from several floors of the eight-story building when they realized they were trapped.
Workers at the factory made T-shirts and polo shirts. The company either was or is currently a supplier to Wal-Mart.
It’s been a bad period for garment worker fatalities in Bangladesh. More than 700 people have died in garment-factory fires there since 2006. This most recent fire was the worst.
And now workers are demanding better safety at these plants.
Another garment-factory fire with 146 deaths
On March 25, 1911, 146 workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in New York City. It’s been called a key trigger event that fundamentally changed U.S. workplace safety conditions.
There are several similarities between the recent Bangladesh fire and the Triangle blaze a century ago:
- More than 100 workers perished inside the Triangle building because they were trapped
- About 40 others died from injuries sustained after jumping from windows
- Exit doors were locked
- There was a lack of fire suppression equipment: only 27 water buckets, and
- Public outrage exploded after the Triangle deaths: The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union organized a funeral march attended by 100,000.
At the time, New York state lawmakers took notice. They passed 36 bills in the next four years to improve workers’ safety and health.
Other states followed New York’s lead. However, it would be another 60 years until federal OSHA was created.
Then vs. now
So it might be easy to come to the conclusion that workplace safety has come a long way in the U.S. while in other countries they are as much as a century behind.
It’s not an unreasonable conclusion. However, consider this story in determining how far we’ve come in the U.S.:
Last year, OSHA fined Mermaid Meat Co., dba Fine Fare Supermarkets, for various safety violations.
The chain had all five of its exit doors at its Brooklyn, NY, location locked at night. Employees couldn’t unlock the door without a manager’s permission.
OSHA issued more than $60,000 in fines to Mermaid, including one willful violation of $49,000 for the locked exits. In a settlement with OSHA, the company has agreed to pay $35,000.
“One hundred years ago in New York City, 146 workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire,” said David Michaels, head of OSHA. “Many of them died because they were locked in and unable to escape swiftly. A century later, we still find employers locking in their employees.”
What does this say about the state of workplace safety in the U.S. today? Let us know what you think in the comments below.