Last year I missed the opportunity to write a post commemorating the 100th anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that occurred on March 25, 1911. I didn’t want to let another year pass without writing about it because of its importance in workplace safety and labor history.
The Triangle Waist Company was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris and manufactured shirtwaists. Most of the company’s employees were young, immigrant women; and like many manufacturing concerns of the day, working conditions were not ideal and the space was cramped.
When the Shirtwaist fire broke out on the 8th floor, many workers found exiting their floor, as well as the building itself, almost impossible. Many doors were locked, some were impassable because they were already blocked by the fire itself, and the few exits that were available quickly became impassable once the fire spread. To make matters worse, when the fire department arrived, they had a difficult time rescuing people because their ladders couldn’t reach high enough. As a result, 146 people, mostly women, died of burns, asphyxiation, or blunt impact from jumping.
After the fire there were two efforts to investigate factory safety and propose new regulations – the Committee on Safety and the New York Factory Investigating Commission. Eventually, the state of New York updated labor laws, passed new laws mandating better building access and egress, updated fireproofing requirements, and other reforms. While the inadequate safety preparations and poor working conditions of this particular factory were exposed, the fire galvanized workers and others concerned about working conditions in factories.
Prior to the Shirtwaist Factory fire, especially during the Progressive Era, the standards and regulations that did exist for workplace safety originated with state and local governments – New York, California, Ohio, and Wisconsin were particularly active in creating safety standards. While most of the attention was devoted to mines and railroads due to the dangerous nature of the work, factories did not go unnoticed.
The publicity surrounding the fire pushed workplace safety issues onto the national stage. In 1913 the National Safety Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to safety issues, was formed. That same year at the meeting of the Second Safety Council, there was a session on fire prevention where they addressed progress in fire suppression techniques, the importance of fire exits, and how both employees and employers needed to be involved in workplace fire safety. Also in 1913, the President signed Public Law 426-62 which created the Department of Labor. Its mission was to:
“foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States, to improve their working conditions, and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment.”
While national consolidation of workplace safety monitoring and regulation had begun early in the mining sector, resulting in several pieces of legislation, standards for manufacturing and other workplaces were still predominantly governed by the states. General safety monitoring at a national level was slower to develop. Many felt state governments were unable to keep up and looked to create a national system. Eventually New Deal policies and the gradual development of administrative governance further developed workplace safety standards. But it wasn’t until 1970, long after the fire, that the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed and created a federal government agency specifically tasked with overseeing workplace safety issues.
If you are interested in doing research on the fire or industrial safety, the Library’s collection and web pages have items that may be of interest. The Prints & Photographs catalog has a number of photographs and the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading collected a series of articles from Chronicling America. You may also enjoy reading two previous blog posts – one from In the Muse and another from the main Library blog.
For more information and additional sources, OSHA developed a page dedicated to the fire and several New York area institutions also remembered the event. The New York Times blog published several posts, Cornell developed an online exhibit, and New York Public Radio has several audio files.