What the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Taught Us
People in today’s workforce have the benefit of having numerous laws and government organizations to help protect your right to work in a safe and healthy environment. While we now have organizations like OSHA to fight against unsafe workplaces and workers’ comp to help injured workers, it’s important to remember that those things haven’t always been around. OSHA has only been around since 1971 and a century ago, workers’ compensation was still a fairly new idea in the United States.
Back at the turn of the 20th century, labor laws were very different from what they are today and far too many workers suffered because of it. In the early 1900s, worker deaths and injuries were a very common occurrence. In 1911, approximately 100 workers died on the job every day. When the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire occurred on March 25, 1911, over 140 workers were killed at that location alone and over 70 more were injured. Sadly, this was an extremely tragic event which could have been avoided with stronger safety measures.
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory was located on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch building (now known as the Brown building) in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. At the time of the fire, the Triangle factory primarily employed immigrant women who were forced to work excessively long hours manufacturing women’s blouses in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for very low wages.
Since Triangle was a clothing manufacturer, the factory was naturally full of things which could easily catch on fire like fabric, finished garments, wooden bins, oil from sewing machines, and paper patterns. However, the factory wasn’t full of basic safety features like sprinklers, functioning fire hoses, and easily accessible exits. In fact, the factory owners refused to install sprinklers, despite how many flammable items were in the factory. To make matters worse, Triangle’s owners were known to lock exits to prevent theft and discourage breaks.
On the afternoon of March 25, 1911, 600 workers were in the factory when a fire broke out in a bin of fabric scraps on the eighth floor of the building. The fire spread so quickly that the fire buckets workers used to try extinguishing the fire quickly proved to be useless. As workers began to flee, some workers on the upper floors of the factory were able to make their way to the roof and escape to a neighboring building. As workers tried getting out by rushing through narrow hallways to the stairs, many of them found themselves trapped behind a locked door. If doors opened at all, they opened inward, making it harder for people to escape. Some workers were able to escape through the elevators, but the elevators couldn’t hold very many people and the fire quickly rendered them inoperable. The building’s fire escape was very poorly constructed and quickly collapsed because of the heat and the weight of the people on it. Over 60 workers resorted to jumping out of windows to escape the flames.
The fire lasted 18 minutes, but its impact can still be felt over a century later. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire is one of the most significant industrial tragedies of all time and played a major role in shaping numerous worker safety laws. In the aftermath of the fire, organizations were formed to investigate the conditions of factories. The Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention law passed in October 1911, which required factory owners to install sprinkler systems and ordered the creation of the Bureau of Fire Prevention. And while the Triangle Shirtwaist fire brought attention to widespread problems in the garment industry, it also brought attention to serious problems with the working conditions in other industries as well.
Triangle’s owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were indicted with manslaughter charges because of their negligence, but were acquitted. Some of the survivors and the families of the victims later sued Harris and Blanck and each plaintiff was awarded $75. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a mere $1,839.69 in today’s money.