Tragedy that gave rise to modern workplace safety happened 108 years ago today
One of the deadliest industrial disasters in the history of the country – the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire - occurred in New York City on this day in 1911. The fire claimed the lives off 146 garment workers – many of whom jumped to their deaths from the 7th, 8th and 9th floors of the building in order to avoid the smoke and flames sweeping through their workplace.
It also produced legislation and safety standards that improved conditions in factories, expanded the membership and power of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and led to the creation of the nation’s oldest professional safety society – the United Association of Casualty Inspectors, which is now known as the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP).
Inspired the country
The fire “inspired our country to address workplace safety in an organized way that didn’t exist before this tragedy,” said ASSP President Rixio Medina, CSP, CPP. “The fire led to a series of laws and regulations that improved workplace safety. It also caused a concerned group of insurance company safety engineers to start what is now ASSP.”
Most of the victims of the fire were female, recent Italian and Jewish immigrants, and young. The youngest fatalities were Kate Leone and Rosaria Maltese, who were both 14 years old.
The factory operated in the Asch Building in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. When fire broke out in the workplace, which was filled with piles of flammable fabric, many workers were unable to exit through doors that were locked to prevent them from taking unauthorized breaks. Making their way to windows didn’t guarantee escape; New York Fire Department ladders in use at the time weren’t long enough to reach the upper floors of the building.
A moment of silence
The ASSP is encouraging all companies and their workers to recognize this important anniversary by observing a moment of silence at 4:45 pm ET Monday – the exact time the first alarm was sounded – to pay tribute to the workers who died in the fire while also refocusing on safe work environments. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 5,000 people are fatally injured on the job each year.
ASSP has grown into a global membership organization of more than 38,000 occupational safety and health professionals whose work through the decades has contributed to dramatic drops in workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities. However, the work of safety organizations, employers and federal agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is never complete.
Advances to be made
“Whether you work at a construction site, in a restaurant, or with students in a classroom, the lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire never should be forgotten,” Medina said. “Keeping our workplaces safe takes an unwavering commitment from everyone. There are always advances to be made and great ideas to be shared.”
Known today as the Brown Building, the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire still stands today, and has been designated a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark.