The worst workplace accident in the history of New York City before 9/11 happened 100 years ago today.
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory was the consummate sweatshop—3 floors of female immigrant workers crowed together in appalling conditions. Late in the afternoon of March 25, 1911, fire broke out on the 8th floor and feeding on the flammable cloth strewn around the workplace, quickly spread to floors 9 and 10.
The workers were trapped. The building had no fire escape and the exits were locked from the outside. They were basically sealed in a pressure cooker.
“It was all nice young Jewish girls who were engaged to be married,” one of the few survivors recounts. “[They] threw themselves from the window. What the hell did they close the door for? What did they think we were gonna do—steal a shirtwaist?”
By the time it was over, 146 workers had perished.
Finding Meaning from Tragedy
Sadly, in the realm of work safety, tragedy is often the engine of progress. The pattern:
- Time 1: Workers are exposed to horrifying conditions;
- Time 2: Terrible tragedy brings public attention to situation;
- Time 3: Public outcry leads to adoption of laws and reforms.
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire is one of the purest examples of this dynamic. In 1911, fire and building codes didn’t exist. Thus, even though the building owners were tried for manslaughter, they were found not guilty. The public outrage furnished the impetus for the development of modern fire codes and safety laws.
Remembering the Other Martyrs
So, on this day, let’s all take a moment to reflect not only on the victims of Triangle Shirt but the other workplace tragedies that ultimately resulted in progress, including:
The 362 Monongah Miners, mostly men and boys, killed in a 1907 West Virginia coal mine explosion, a disaster that led to the adoption of federal mine safety laws.
The 26 Westray Miners who perished in a 1992 Nova Scotia mine explosion which resulted in Canada’s adoption of the C-45 criminal negligence law.
Lori Dupont, the Toronto nurse murdered by her co-worker/doctor/ex-boyfriend in a tragic death that furnished the impetus for Ontario’s adoption of Bill 168—the workplace violence law—last June.
The 5 Metron Construction migrant workers who lost their lives in Toronto on Christmas Eve when the scaffolding they were working on collapsed, producing a public outrage that led the Ontario government to initiate OHS reform.