Yesterday was the 112th anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. This tragedy has become synonymous with workplace safety and ongoing regulations to protect workers. There were so many things wrong with the working conditions at Triangle Shirtwaist that it’s hard to believe that at the time none of it was illegal:
- Stairwells and exits were locked.
- There were no fire alarms to alert anyone to the fire.
- There was a single fire escape.
- In addition, fire department ladders, when they finally did arrive could only reach the seventh floor.
As a direct result of this fire, many changes, thanks to unions and current OSHA requirements have made things safer, but as we can see in today’s news, deregulation of trains and how chemicals are transported led directly to the Norfolk Southern train derailment and the new Governor of Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, signed into law a roll back of child labor laws, allowing children, ages 14 and 15 to not fill out a form for work, commonly known as working papers. Other child labor laws remain in effect. In the case of Ohio, the governor took advice, not from the professionals but from the CEO of the train company to burn the chemicals in a controlled way. This led to people being evacuated and becoming ill. The CEO chose the most cost-effective option rather than the safest in many people’s opinions. Actions like these will likely lead to environmental disasters and workplace injuries that will affect these children for their lifetimes.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was situated in the Asch Building on the corner of Greene St. and Washington Place in Greenwich Village’s garment district. It resided on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors and employed about 500 workers, mostly immigrants, mostly young Italian and Jewish women and girls who worked fifty-two hours a week including Saturday, earning between $7 and $12 a week.
The fire broke out around closing time. The only warning was someone on the 8th floor calling the 10th to warn of the fire on the 9th floor. The common practice of locking stairwells and exits was in effect and the person who held the stairway key had already escaped. Dozens escaped by going to the roof. A crowd escaped to a single fire escape which buckled from the heat and the weight and collapsed sending about twenty to their deaths on the ground below. 146 people died and 78 were injured.
As for the fire, arson was not suspected despite four previous fires considered suspicious by companies owned by the same two co-owners.
The fire spurred a host of new labor laws including minimum wage and worker protections that included adequate bathroom facilities and a lessening of working hours for women and children. It also saw the burgeoning advancement of unions including the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which had been established in 1900 and only expanded and diversified after the fire.
In Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn is a memorial to the six unidentified victims. They have recently been identified and their names were added to the list of victims known since 1911.
Today the building is the Brown Building and is part of the New York University campus and part of the National Historic Register.
For more information on this tragedy and its aftermath, check out the links below:
International Women’s Garment Workers Union
OSHA and the Triangle Factory Fire
Unite Here and the Triangle Factory Fire
Uncovering the History of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire