On March 25, 1911, 146 workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in New York City. It’s been called an event that fundamentally changed U.S. workplace conditions. But have workplace safety attitudes really changed in 100 years?
You’re probably thinking, “Of course they have.” And many things have changed.
But first, before I make my argument that some things haven’t changed, some history.
Workers were mostly immigrants
Some 270 workers were employed at Triangle in 1911. Most of them were recent Jewish and Italian immigrants. On March 25, something caused fabric used to make women’s blouses to catch fire.
The fire spread quickly, trapping many young, recent immigrant women on the ninth floor of the building.
About 40 jumped from windows to their deaths. Blankets were held below to try to catch the women, but they fell right through them. About 100 more burned to death inside the building.
The average age of those killed was 19.
Exit doors were locked because the owners wanted to prevent thefts. Other doors opened from the inside, also making escape impossible. There was just one shaky fire escape. The only fire suppression equipment: 27 water buckets.
Fire companies responded quickly, but they were no match for the blaze. It was all over in about half an hour.
Public outrage over deaths
The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union organized a funeral march attended by 100,000.
New York state lawmakers took notice. They formed the Factory Investigative Commission. It investigated 3,385 workplaces and reported on fire safety, machine guarding, ventilation and other safety and health topics.
The core recommendation of the commission: that government take action to protect the safety of working people.
Another key finding by the commission: The high proportion of non-English speaking immigrants in some industries compounded workplace safety problems.
The New York legislature passed 36 bills in the next four years to improve workers’ safety and health.
The pace of legislative action slowed five years later when businesses claimed many of the commission’s charges were unfounded, investigators were inexperienced and the reforms were too costly and would force employers to relocate to other states.
Still, the Triangle fire is credited with launching government action that was duplicated in other states and led to The New Deal and the creation of OSHA 60 years later. The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) also formed just six months after the Triangle fire.
Fast forward to today
Next month, the U.S. will mark the one-year anniversaries of two other workplace disasters: the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 miners on April 5, 2010, and the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers on April 20, 2010.
When workplace disasters result in the deaths of multiple workers, politicians still take notice and call for new laws to protect workers.
Yet, it may come as a surprise to many Americans that 4,340 workers still die each year on the job in the U.S. That’s about 12 per day. Most of these deaths get no media coverage beyond hometown newspapers and TV stations because they happen one at a time.
Each day in the U.S., more workers die than the number killed in the BP explosion. In three days, more die than died in the Massey mine. In 13 days, the same number of workers die as perished in the Triangle fire.
When lawmakers call for new safety regulations, business groups still say claims about workplace safety are unfounded, OSHA investigators aren’t experienced and the costs of new regulations will cause them to lose huge amounts of money and eliminate jobs.
And the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports Hispanic workers die or are injured on the job at a disproportionate rate. For many of these workers, English wasn’t their first language.
Some things to think about, 100 years after the Triangle fire.
What do you think? As the Triangle anniversary is marked, is the U.S. on the right track when it comes to workplace safety, or have we lost our way? You can leave your comments below.