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The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (1911) - A Turning Point for Workplace Safety

Posted by Shivi Kakar

Mar 23, 2011 3:39:09 PM

[caption id="attachment_1647" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="John Sloan's cartoon "The Real Triangle" published two days after the fire"]The Real Triangle Fire[/caption]

by Megan Grennille

As the Project Coordinator at Emilcott, I often see our EHS staff’s recommendations for health and safety improvements at our clients’ worksites. These companies want to create a safer workplace for their employees -- it makes good business sense, and it’s just the “right” thing to do!  It is hard to imagine that, historically, employee health and safety practices used to be very different in the U.S.

March 25, 2011 marks the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire -- just 45 minutes from the Emilcott office in Morristown.  It was the type of workplace that women my own age worked… I could have been trapped in the shop!  That realization makes me think how lucky I am -- and how far workers’ rights have come in the U.S.  I am familiar with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSHA”), and its mandate that every one of us has the right to a workplace free of recognized hazards.  So, where did all this policy begin…?

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company

The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in Greenwich Village ran what was considered to be a large garment factory.  This factory took up the top three floors (8, 9 and 10) of the ten-story Asch Building in lower Manhattan near Washington Square.  The employees used sewing machines to manufacture shirtwaists, a type of blouse with a high neck.  Like others of this vintage, the shop was designed to maximize output while squeezing in as many workers as possible.  Most of the workers were female and recent immigrants and everyone worked long workdays under extremely poor conditions. 

Records show that on March 25, 1911 a fire erupted on the top floors of the Asch Building killing 146 people in less than twenty minutes.  How did this tragedy happen?

  • The fire began on the 8th floor just as workers were ready to leave for the day.

    • Many of the workers sewing on the 8th and 10th floors escaped (they either saw the fire or were warned about the fire)

    • Workers on the ninth floor were not as lucky; the fire below them became an inferno before they were alerted to it.  

  • Building exits quickly became almost non-existent:

    • The two stairwells in the building were steep and narrow.

    • One exit was locked because the Triangle Company tried to discourage employees from leaving the workplace and stealing. 

    • The fire escape buckled from the combination of heat and weight of the people and fell to the ground.

    • Two elevators also failed due to the heat from the fire and weight of people jumping into the elevator shaft to flee the fire

    • Workers trapped inside the building leapt from the top floors with nowhere to go as all of the escape routes were failing. 

  • Although the Manhattan fire department responded, one of the largest hook and ladder trucks was only able to reach the sixth floor of the burning building.

In a nutshell, no warning system, no fire extinguishing system, no emergency exit plan, and, clearly no compliance with NFPA 101!

Given the tragic high death rate, it seems as though everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.  But in 1911 high rise buildings were relatively new with unforeseen dangers.  In fact, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company claimed they were not responsible because building regulations were inadequate at the time.  (Their legal argument about the locked exit door was that the lock’s key was tied to the lock with the string).  And, there were no smoke detectors, occupancy limits, sprinkler systems, or planned evacuation routes affixed to the wall.  Today, we take these measures for granted.  Just think of how fire extinguishers could have changed the outcome of this disaster if they had been in place on the eighth floor. 

A Turning Point for Workplace Safety

These lives were not lost in vain! This seminal industrial accident became a catalyst to initiate reform in the safety and welfare of factory workers in New York and the rest of the country.  It also marked a turning point in the fight for workers’ rights in America as only a small percentage of workers were unionized at the time.  

Immediately, workers and the public began calling for change to address occupational safety issues!  Just one day after the fire a protest was held at the Women’s Trade Union League.  Within one week the Committee on Safety was established in New York City.  On June 30, 1911 the New York State Factory Investigating Commission was formed to report factory conditions.  Frances Perkins, who witnessed the fire from the ground, eventually became the U.S. Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt and helped bring in many new labor laws during her time in office. 

Where Are We Today?

American workers are now protected by a safety net designed and enforced by OSHA and other federal and state labor laws, but workplace accidents still occur.  In 2009, 4,340 fatal work injuries were recorded in the United States (3.3 deaths for every 100,000 full-time workers).   After 100 years of reform, they are on a smaller scale -- fewer injuries and the incidents that usually do not make national headlines unless, again, there is a dramatic loss of life such as mining accidents.

A US Senate resolution just passed on March 17 designating the week of March 21–25 as “100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Remembrance Week.” The Asch Building, now referred to as the Brown Building, is located at 29 Washington Place and is occupied by New York University. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the anniversary of the Triangle fire has been marked by an annual memorial ceremony in front of the building by the New York City Fire Department and the ILGWU (now UNITE). 

Sweatshops exist in many countries where worker protection is less important than economic growth.  Driven by cost, much of the clothing sold in America is made in sweatshops overseas.   Just last year a fire broke out in a garment factory in Bangladesh.  Similar to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, it was on the upper floors of a building and some exits were locked.  The fire killed at least 25 people and injured many more, most of which were women and girls.  The Triangle Shirtwaist 100th Commemoration Ceremony will be a timely and powerful reminder of steps we’ve taken to improve worker health, and what remains left to do.

To learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and 2011 commemoration events, visit these links:

Topics: OSHA, health and safety, General Industry H&S, OSHA Compliance, General EHS, Construction H&S, Emergency Response, H&S Training, worker safety, Occupational Health, Occupational Safety, regulation, Fire Safety, shirtwaist, fire, triangle

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