Conditions may have improved since the calamitous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire a century ago, but fire is still a serious threat to businesses -- and one that has the potential to put a company out of business -- according to the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).

“A large percentage of companies suffering a catastrophic fire either do not reopen, or fail within the next few years, said ASSE Fire Protection Practice Specialty Administrator Walter S. Beattie. He said steps that business owners can take to protect their employees and property are fire protection systems – such as fire sprinklers – and alarms.

“Businesses should implement written and tested human element and emergency action plans,” Beattie continues. “A written business continuity plan should be developed and kept up to date so business owners and managers can react quickly and effectively after a loss. Perform and periodically update hazard analysis studies to verify that protection features are still adequate. And, regularly inspect, test, and maintain your fire protection systems to ensure they are in top condition, and ready to control a fire when it does strike.”

The Triangle Factory fire in New York City in 1911 killed 146 people who were unable to escape the fireproof building due to locked doors (to prevent employees from taking breaks), blocked exits and collapsed and melting fire escapes. There was no fire alarm. The fabrics used to make the garments were highly flammable.

Sixty-two of the victims jumped to their deaths to escape the flames. The fire engine ladders in use at the time were too short to reach the 9th floor, where many workers were trapped, and the fire nets were not sturdy enough to safely catch people jumping from that height. Thousands of New Yorkers looked on in horror, devastated, unable to help.

The ASSE relays the story of an elevator operator who made several trips to try and rescue those stuck on the 9th floor, but as the flames progressed, more workers jumped to their deaths in the elevator shaft. The weight of the bodies soon prevented the operator from returning to upper floors.

It was one of the deadliest disasters in American workplace history. Seven months later, the ASSE was founded.

Although the Triangle Shirtwaist factory was a particularly hazardous work environment, Beattie said that there were fire protection measures in existence at the time, but that some businesses opted not to adopt them. These programs included:
  • By 1911, major manufacturing factories, especially in New England and in major metropolitan areas had been implementing fire protection practices for decades. Many factories were recognized as highly protected risk (HPR) properties by insurers even back into the 1800’s.
  • A heat-actuated sprinkler head had been patented in 1872, 40 years before 1911, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
  • By 1878, the Factory Mutual Insurance Companies established a dedicated unit of engineers to inspect insured facilities. Engineers would make recommendations for improvements, estimate loss potential, witness fire protection equipment testing and advise the underwriters of the standard of protection at each insured property. Factory Mutual had written sprinkler installation guidelines as early as 1891.
  • The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) had 56 written, adopted standards on various aspects of fire prevention and protection, including: automatic sprinklers; fire extinguishers; fire doors; fire alarms; fire hoses and fire hydrants; fire pumps; theater construction and protection; fire water tanks; fire prevention ordinances and electrical code.
“We urge businesses to review their current fire prevention/safety plans now,” Beattie said. “As with the Triangle fire and other fires since, a fire can happen quickly and not only destroy a business, but lives and families.”

Go to www.asse.org for more information and to www.viewer.zmags.com to view FireLine, the ASSE Fire Protection practice specialty newsletter with Beattie’s recent article on fire sprinkler codes, inspections and maintenance.

About ASSE

Founded in 1911 and celebrating its centennial, the Des Plaines, IL-based ASSE is the oldest professional safety society and is committed to protecting people, property and the environment. Last year, ASSE had more than 3600 attendees from the U.S. and 38 countries attend its PDC. Its more than 33,000 occupational safety, health and environmental professional members lead, manage, supervise, research and consult on safety, health, transportation and environmental issues.