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Remembering the Triangle Fire

James R. Thornton, CSP, CIH, FASSP, FAIHA, 2023-24 ASSP President and ASSP Foundation Chair
Oct 01, 2023

Jim ThorntonThe founding of our organization is anchored to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911. In response to the tragedy, which claimed the lives of 146 young garment workers, workplace safety legislation was introduced and ASSP was born later that year as the United Association of Casualty Inspectors. We have been dedicated to advancing workplace safety and health ever since.

On Oct. 11, we will participate in a ceremony to dedicate the Triangle Fire Memorial in New York City at the site of the original fire. The memorial recognizes our nation’s legacy of reform and honors the 146 workers who tragically died on that fateful day. ASSP contributed $32,519.11 to the memorial’s construction, connecting the seven digits of the fire’s date (3/25/1911) to emphasize the significant moment in U.S. labor history. The ASSP Foundation donated an additional $25,000 to the project.

We are deeply grateful to the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, which has worked tirelessly to bring the project to fruition. Its completion serves as a reminder that the lessons of the past continue to shape our commitment to creating safer, more just workplaces for all.

The reality, however, is that it still often takes such crises to generate the momentum needed to achieve significant change in worker safety and health. Too often, the prevailing mindset is to prioritize short-term gains over long-term investments in worker well-being. Decision-makers may believe implementing comprehensive safety measures could reduce profit, a perspective that overlooks the substantial human and economic costs that occur when safety is compromised. The cost of inaction far outweighs the investment in protective measures.

Often, a disconnect exists between business leaders and the realities of the workplace. Top-level executives may not have firsthand insight into the daily challenges and potential hazards that workers face. The common “it won’t happen to us” mindset can create a sense of invulnerability, which may lead to inaction as well.

As safety professionals, we must serve as the trusted advisors who help our organizational leaders recognize that investing in safety is an investment in the well-being of employees and in long-term business sustainability. We all know that robust safety practices not only prevent human suffering but also help improve productivity, lower absenteeism and increase employee engagement. All of these outcomes contribute to the bottom line.

To overcome the cycle of waiting for tragedy to initiate change, we must be proactive leaders in our organizations and help foster a culture that embraces worker safety. We must inform our business leaders about the many hazards workers face and recommend effective solutions that will safeguard them and better protect their well-being. And we must partner with a wide range of stakeholders because we know safety is a collaborative effort that requires ongoing communication and a sense of duty to one another.

The Triangle fire is a poignant reminder that the pursuit of improved worker safety is an ongoing journey, not a destination. It underscores the collective responsibility to safeguard the lives and well-being of workers, regardless of industry or occupation. The founding of ASSP is a testament to the enduring commitment to this cause. Our Society continues to play a leading role in developing and advocating for safety regulations, proven guidelines, and best practices that have saved and will continue to save countless lives.

History must continue to motivate us to do better for all workers. As we reflect on the tragic events of March 25, 1911, let us renew our commitment to our ongoing quest to ensure the safety and well-being of all workers. Every worker has the fundamental right to be treated with dignity and respect, and also deserves to return home to their loved ones safe and healthy at day’s end.

From heartbreak comes determination and safer, healthier work environments. As the world’s oldest professional safety organization, ASSP and the ASSP Foundation are proud to have supported the creation of the Triangle Fire Memorial. But it is all of us working together that can prevent tragedies like the Triangle fire from ever happening again.

The Triangle Fire Memorial

View President Thornton's video message about the memorial and its impact on worker safety and the OSH profession.


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