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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Its Lasting Impacts on Workplace Safety and Health

Posted by Clarion Safety Systems on 25th Mar 2021

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Today marks the 110 th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City – one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history, killing 123 women and girls and 23 men. Doors to the exits and stairwells on the factory’s eighth, ninth and tenth floors were locked, leaving 146 garment works with no route of escape. This was a time well before important regulations, protocols and best practices for equipment and workplace safety were established. Yet, this tragedy spurred an awakening of the need for safety measures, leading to over a century of occupational health and safety reforms – and a continued commitment today to workers across the country.

Remembering the Events of the Fire
In 1911, the Triangle Waist Company, operating out of a ten-story building, was producing women’s blouses, known then as “shirtwaists.” The company’s employees consisted mostly of recent Italian and Jewish immigrants, with men, women and children making up the factory’s nearly 500 employees. Nearing the workday’s end on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in a fabric scrap bin on the top floors of the building; later, the likely cause was determined to be an unextinguished match or cigarette butt (smoking was banned in the factory but workers were known to regularly sneak cigarettes). A passerby on the street saw smoke and notified the fire department; they arrived quickly but were unable to stop the spread as their ladders only reached the building’s seventh floor. An accountant on the eight floor was able to notify employees on the tenth floor of the fire via telephone, but with no audible fire alarm and no means to contact people on the ninth floor, these employees had no notice of the growing fire. While some employees were able to escape via elevators, stairways and rooftop access, others were trapped due to locked doors preventing access to a safe escape. The factory foreman, who held the stairway keys, had escaped early on via fire escape.

An Early View of Workplace Safety Liability
The fire, given its devastation, is viewed in conjunction with a handful of other workplace travesties as being the foundation for today’s safety practices. As a result of the fatalities, the factory’s owners were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter. Through trial, the prosecution managed to prove that the factory doors were locked during the fire, but the defense managed to get off after citing that the prosecution couldn’t actually prove that the owners knew the doors were locked. The owners were eventually sued in a civil lawsuit and found liable for wrongful death. They were ordered to pay compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim, though the owners’ insurance company paid them $60,000, or just over $400 per casualty.

Workplace Safety: Then and Now
Many of the norms that we view as commonplace today were drastically different — nearly nonexistent — in the early 1900s, including workplace safety. Back then, little was done to prevent workplace injury, and safety was not a top priority as it is today. Because lawsuits related to workplace injuries were inexpensive, usually only amounting to about half of a worker’s salary, safety regulations were slow to develop due to factory owners viewing the lawsuits as frivolous or inconsequential to their bottom line, as documented in the example above.

Just after the fire in April 1911, a NYC Committee on Public Safety was formed and headed by Frances Perkins, who would later be appointed United States Secretary of Labor. The committee focused on identifying specific workplace safety issues and lobbying legislation, eventually influencing the passing of the “54-hour Bill” which shortened the hours within a workweek. Later, the Factory Investigation Commission was founded by the New York State Legislature to investigate factory conditions to prevent hazards or loss of life among employees. Through the Commission’s investigations and implementation of remedial actions, sixty new labor regulation laws were passed in New York between 1911 and 1913. These laws mandated the following:

As a direct result of the fire, the American Society of Safety Professionals was founded in New York City in 1911. The National Safety Council was formed in 1913 to improve workplace safety issues, particularly in the traffic and industrial sectors. In 1915, the United States Department of Labor was formed, issuing its first set of regulations. The 1930s offered additional workplace advancements, including the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act, both formed in 1935, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, formed in 1938. These Acts aimed to protect the rights and health of employees and employers across several industries and are seen as the foundation of modern workplace safety.

A tragic Boston fire in 1942 led to increased fire codes and regulations being passed, and in 1966 the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act were both passed, setting vehicular safety standards. Perhaps the most important workplace safety development occurred in 1971 with the formation of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) by the Nixon administration. OSHA was formed to protect people from potential workplace hazards and today is viewed as the authority in American workplace protection.

Since the start of the 20th century, several workplace safety improvements have been made via passed laws and regulations, offering up a drastically different view of safety as compared to the days of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Today, safety is a workplace requirement, and fines and penalties are handed down by OSHA for noncompliance annually. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), formed in 1918 and 1947 respectively, are safety standards-setting bodies that oversees various workplace safety areas, including the symbols and messaging on product safety labels, signs and tags.

Together, Continuing to Make the World a Safer Place
Over a century later, the lives lost during the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire are remembered through the many initiatives and advancements in safety that that tragic event spurred. The state of safety both domestically in the U.S. and worldwide continues to advance with each passing year.

Since Clarion Safety entered the safety landscape more than thirty years ago, we’ve seen many important advancements. Some of our proudest moments through the years where we’ve been at the forefront of driving changes include:

  • Being involved at the leadership level in the U.S. (ANSI) and international (ISO) standards committees in visual safety communication.
  • Providing leadership to the NYC building code committee for skyscraper egress and evacuation markings after 9/11.
  • Spearheading a six-year effort to lobby OSHA to update to its outdated workplace safety sign rules, resulting in nationwide regulations with references to the best practice ANSI Z535 standards.
  • Being part of the development process for ISO 45001, the world’s first occupational health and safety management systems standard.

We look forward to years to come of continuing to work together with industry partners,advocates and associations to drive positive change, and to bring you the safety products and services needed to help reduce risk and protect people.

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