The Industrial Revolution changed work forever; better quality products were made faster, for less money. Efficiency was the goal, businesses and government had little incentive to protect workers, until tragedy struck. One of the most well known workplace tragedies is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
In 1911 New York, sweatshops were common. Workers—often children and teens who recently immigrated to America—put in 12-hour days for low wages. Nearly all of the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were young girls, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants.
The factory’s owners had a suspicious history with fires. They had lost several factories to fire. Insurance scams in the garment industry were common, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had a large fire insurance policy.
Photo: Firefighters attempt to put out the fire at the Triangle
Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, March 25, 1911.
The factory itself was dangerous. Managers refused to install any sprinkler systems, fire alarms or other safety measures. The factory had multiple floors but only one working elevator, reachable only by a long narrow hallway. Of the two stairways, one was locked during shifts to prevent stealing, while the door to the other only opened inward. The single fire escape was so narrow that it was nearly impossible to navigate. Local government corruption meant they wouldn’t be caught for these safety hazards.
On March 25, 1911, a small fire started in a rag bin on the 8th floor. A manager went to put it out with the fire hose, only to find the hose was rotten and its valve rusted shut. As the fire grew, panic spread throughout the 600 workers in the factory. The elevator could only hold 12 people at a time and only made 4 trips before it broke down. Some girls, left waiting for the elevator and desperate to escape, jumped into the empty shaft to their deaths. Those who tried to escape down the stairs found the doors locked. Many were burned alive attempting to break them down.
Those on the top floors escaped to the roof of the factory and then climbed to other buildings. The building’s fire escape later collapsed under the heat. As firefighters arrived, those still trapped in the building began jumping out of windows in a frantic attempt to survive. Attempting to rescue the workers, firefighters brought out their ladders but they only reached the 7th floor—one floor below where the fire began. Firefighters unfurled a safety net and for a while managed to save a few until it ripped. Bystanders looked on in horror, as it seemed nothing could be done.
The fire lasted only 18 minutes, but 146 people died, mostly girls under the age of 17. This tragedy set in motion monumental changes to workplace safety.
Two weeks later, 80,000 workers protested the conditions that led to the fire. While there was evidence that management ignored safety regulations, the owners were not convicted of manslaughter. However, the deaths compelled the city to pass the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law. Safety laws around the country improved, including in Washington, due in part to the Triangle fire. These laws enacted many safety standards we take for granted today: sprinkler systems, adequate stairwells, and doors that open outward, to name just a few.
In the weeks leading to Labor Day on September 2, we take a look at five historical cases of unsafe working conditions that helped contribute to improvements in workplace safety we all benefit from today. In two weeks, part three in the series: The Children Left Behind – Breaker Boys.
Read the first part of the series: Blood, sweat, and trees... How L&I came to be.