How the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Changed Workplace Safety [A Byte Out of the Big Apple]

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The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in midtown Manhattan changed history forever. The tragedy of 1911 is commemorated every March to remember workers who have lost their lives and to educate the public about workplace safety.

The fire prompted labor laws that to this day help protect the health and well-being of workers. Although this is a sensitive subject, it serves as an important reminder of the importance of safety in all industrial sectors.

In addition to a brief history of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, a list of resources is provided below.

New York’s Early Labor Laws

At the turn of the 20and century, shirts were all the rage. Gone are the days of stuffy corsets with these button up blouses. They looked like men’s clothes. They looked like independence. This is because this workwear fashion trend was for women who worked outside the home.

In what is now part of NYU – as most of Greenwich Village seems to be these days – stood the Renaissance Revival Asch Building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place. The top three floors of this 10-story building were the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

Here, girls as young as 12 worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, bent in line in front of sewing machines. They were paid $7 a week, a below-average wage even at the time. Although most of these Germans, Hungarians, Italians and Russian Jews did not speak English, the immigrant girls tried to defend themselves. There had been uprisings in 1909 and 1910, but the factory owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, paid politicians to look the other way and hired police to jail anyone who went on strike.

The space was overcrowded, and although there were technically four elevators, in reality the girls only had access to one that was fully operational. And while there were two staircases, the door to one was locked to prevent theft, and the door to the other only opened from the outside.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had already had two fires in 1902, and Blanck and Harris had also faced fires at their Diamond Waist Company factory in 1907 and 1910. Rumor has it that they burned down the factories themselves to collect insurance.

All fires start

On the morning of Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the eighth floor rag bin. The unscrupulous managers had not bothered to install sprinklers that could have helped put out the fire. Even the fire hose that existed had not been properly maintained. Its valve had rusty closedmaking it useless.

At the time, New York did not legally require companies to conduct regular fire drills, so plant managers did not review safety protocols with employees. As a result, the 600 workers did not know what to do in an emergency. Some rushed to an elevator shaft and stairwells with locked exits. Others attempted to jump from high-rise windows to safety but were eventually charged with helping to fight the fires. More difficult.

The men and girls who worked on the floors above where the fire had started reached the roof. Like superheroes, they threw themselves on the roofs of adjoining buildings.

The fire only lasted 18 minutes, but 146 lives were lost.

A city cries and fights for reform

Around 400,000 people are reported to have come out to march or watch the funeral procession for the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. But that’s not all. Activists lobbied leaders.

This led to the New York factory investigation committee and the safety committee formal investigation and propose new regulations. The result was that laws were created not only for fire safety, but also for factory inspection and rules surrounding the employment of minors. Two years later, the National Security Council was founded and the second Security Council held a session on fire prevention. Finally, in 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) was adopted.

Know your rights and practice workplace safety

Today, it remains important for workers to know their rights and practice workplace safety. Here is a list of resources businesses and employees can use to ensure proper protocols:

Image Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

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