Although a Presidential Proclamation called the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire a “galvanizing moment” which provoked sweeping improvements to safety regulations throughout the country, the factors which made it such a deadly event can still be found in workplaces throughout the U.S. and the world, say officials and safety professionals.

When fire swept through the upper floors of a factory in New York City 100 years ago today, resulting in the deaths of 146 workers, a number of hazards were present: :
  • Door that were locked to prevent employees from taking breaks
  • A single rusted fire escape. (When workers did attempt to use it to escape the blaze it collapsed, killing several of them.)
  • Flammable fabric piled in heaps throughout the facility
  • Exits that were blocked by supplies
In addition, the fire department ladders in use at the time were too short to reach the 8th and 9th floors – where most of the workers were trapped. Of the 146 people who perished in the fire, 62 of them chose to jump to their deaths rather than be burned alive.

The Triangle factory was not unique in its poor conditions. In the early 1900s, the U.S. garment industry was infamous for making employees work long hours for low wages, in dangerous and unsanitary working conditions. A massive strike in 1909 failed to win workers the improvements they sought. The Triangle owners were among those who refused to meet those demands.

“Is anyone to be punished for this?” railed a newspaper editorial. No one was. Because no laws had been broken, the factory owners were not charged with any crimes. As a result of a civil suit, they agreed to pay the families of the victims $75 per dead employee.

"We stood with our hands on our throats"

One of the shocked bystanders who watched helplessly as (mostly) young women leapt to their deaths was the woman who would later become Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a cabinet post, later said: “I shall never forget the frozen horror that came across as we stood with our hands on our throats watching that horrible sight, knowing that there was no help.”

Perkins said the experience “seared on my mind as well as my heart – a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.” 

She spent her career striving to improve the lives of workers – which included lobbying the New York state legislature for a bill limiting the workweek for women and children to 54 hours.

4,340 U.S. workers were killed on the job last year

The Triangle Factory fire did result in new worker safety laws and has been cited as the inspiration for the occupational safety industry (including the American Association of Safety Engineers – ASSE – which came into existence seven months after the catastrophe).

However, fast-forwarding to the present reveals that many workplaces remain dangerous. U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda S. Solis said that as recently as last year, investigations turned up hundreds of garment factories with conditions similar to those of the Triangle factory, where vulnerable immigrant workers toiled in unsafe conditions.

And while the Triangle fire anniversary has focused attention on the garment industry, 4,340 workers in a variety of fields were killed on the job last year, compared to the 100 who died on the job each day in 1911, when the country had a much smaller overall population. The Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in West Virginia on April 5, 2010, claimed the lives of 29 miners.

Another deadly day – but one which received less media coverage – occurred in 1991, when a fire broke out in a chicken production factory in Hamlet, North Carolina, killing 25 workers who were trapped inside because the factory doors were locked.

As industrialization increases in other countries, workplace safety is not always a high priority. A deadly fire in a toy factory in Thailand just four years ago bore eerie similarities to the Triangle Factory fire catastrophe: the exit doors were locked, and many of the workers jumped to their deaths to escape the blaze. The fatal tally that day: 188 lives lost.

And on a chilly day recently in Staten Island, modern-day mourners gathered at the tombstones of some of the victims of the Triangle Factory fire to pay their respects. The last six victims were identified using genealogical research just a month ago.