PBS special and an ASSE book recount disaster that drew attention to workplace safety
You don’t have to know what a shirtwaist is (see the link at the end) to be interested in the 100-year anniversary of a tragic fire in New York that is said to have helped drive the beginnings of the mandatory workers’ comp system in the United States.
1911 fire killed 146 workers
According to a post at Business Insurance, “The PBS American Experience documentary on the Triangle [Shirt]Waist Factory fire that killed 146 people, mostly young immigrant women, is well worth watching, a spokeswoman for a comp insurer tells me.
“The 1911 fire is credited with being among the forces that helped launch mandatory workers compensation systems in the United States. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the fire and the birth of U.S. work comp systems.”
‘Deadliest workplace accident in New York’s history’
According to this PBS: American Experience page, “It was the deadliest workplace accident in New York City’s history. On March 25th, 1911, a deadly fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. The blaze ripped through the congested loft as petrified workers–mostly young immigrant women–desperately tried to make their way downstairs. By the time the fire burned itself out, 146 people were dead. All but 17 of the dead were women and nearly half were teenagers.”
13-hour workdays, at 13 cents an hour
Not only were most of the workers immigrants but so were the owners, who paid workers 13 cents an hour–for a 13-hour workday–while they lived in luxury. “Two men who had achieved the dream were the wealthy owners of the thriving Triangle [Shirtwaist] factory. Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, immigrants who had arrived from Russia only 20 years earlier, had become known as New York’s ‘Shirtwaist Kings,’ and each owned fully staffed brownstones on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.”
Some condition improved–but not enough
After “what became the largest women’s strike in American history” and gaining support from wealthy grand dames of society such as “Anne Morgan, the daughter of J.P. Morgan,” the owners relented–somewhat:
After the strike had continued for 11 weeks, the Triangle owners finally agreed to higher wages and shorter hours. But they drew the line at a union. Back on the job, the Triangle workers still lacked real power to improve the worst conditions of the factory floor: inadequate ventilation, lack of safety precautions and fire drills–and locked doors.
When a tossed match or lit cigarette ignited a fire on the eighth floor of the building, flames spread quickly. Blanck and Harris received warning by phone and escaped, but the 240 workers on the ninth floor continued stitching, oblivious to the flames gathering force on the floor below. When they finally did see the smoke, the women panicked. Some rushed toward the open stairwell, but columns of flames already blocked their path.
A few workers managed to cram onto the elevator while others ran down an inadequate fire escape, which crumbled under the weight, crashing to the ground almost 100 feet below. The only remaining exit was a door that had been locked to prevent theft. The key was tucked into the pocket of the foreman, who listened to the women’s cries for help from the street. Hundreds of horrified onlookers arrived just in time to see young men and women jumping from the windows, framed by flames.
Immense public reaction
The next thing to ignite was public opinion: “The ensuing public outrage forced government action. Within three years, more than 36 new state laws had passed regulating fire safety and the quality of workplace conditions. The landmark legislation gave New Yorkers the most comprehensive workplace safety laws in the country and became a model for the nation.”
If you’re interested, be alert to your local PBS schedule for the next broadcast, or you can order the DVD here.
There’s also an interesting 100-year timeline of significant workplace events here assembled by the same people, the American Society of Safety Engineers, who produced this book, entitled “Triangle: The fire That Changed America.”
Oh, and a “shirtwaist”? That’s explained here.