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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: An American Tragedy

Mar 24, 2021
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers and visitors

March 25, 1911. This date will forever stand as one of the most tragic days in American workplace history. At 4:40 p.m. the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the Asch Building in New York City caught fire. Though the fire lasted only 18 minutes, it claimed the lives of 146 people. There were 123 women and girls who perished, some as young as 14 years old.

Now 110 years later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire still serves as a reminder that every measure must be taken to protect worker safety. It also demonstrates the potential consequences of putting profits and productivity above worker safety.

The fire remains one of the deadliest workplace incidents in U.S. history. This tragedy highlighted the harsh and unsafe working conditions that so many faced during that time and demonstrated the deadly repercussions of allowing such a working environment.

A Perfect Storm

Several factors contributed to the fire and massive loss of life — namely a working environment filled with combustible materials, inadequate means for workers to escape and a fire department ill-equipped to extinguish a blaze in such a building. Investigators concluded that a discarded cigarette ignited the fire, and containers filled with garment waste throughout the factory allowed the fire to spread rapidly. While water buckets were located throughout the building to put out fires, some in the building during the fire said the buckets were empty.

The fire began on the eighth floor of the 10-story building. As it spread, executives on the 10th floor were notified, yet workers on the 9th floor were unaware of what was happening until the flames reached them.

The building had only one fire escape, and doors to stairwells leading out of the building had been illegally locked by the building’s managers, allegedly to prevent workers from stealing materials. Doors also opened inward, making it more difficult for workers to exit. Furthermore, the laws in New York City at the time did not require buildings to contain sprinkler systems, nor were they required to conduct fire drills.

When firefighters arrived on the scene, their ladders were not tall enough to reach the eighth floor of the Asch building, and the nets they deployed to catch workers often ripped upon impact.

News accounts of the fire shared stories of workers trapped on the upper floors of the 10-story building leaping to the street below as they were unable to exit through stairwells or fire escapes. The only accessible fire escape ended at a second-floor skylight, and it collapsed during the fire under the weight of workers attempting to flee. 

In December 1911, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck were indicted and tried on seven counts of first- and second-degree manslaughter because they knew the exits were locked, preventing workers from exiting the building. They were acquitted of all charges. 

Moving Forward for Safety

In the days, week, months and years that followed, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire served as a catalyst for change and led to improvements in workplace safety. Thousands took part in demonstrations in the streets of New York City, calling for better working conditions, more fire inspectors and new fire safety codes. Future U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who witnessed the fire, worked to establish the Factory Investigating Commission, which was given unprecedented authority to investigate the incident, and successfully lobbied for stronger safety measures.

In October 1911, the United Association of Casualty Inspectors was founded, then renamed as the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) in 1914, and the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) in 2018. The Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law was also passed in New York in October 1911, which required factory owners to install sprinkler systems in their buildings, and established the New York City Fire Prevention Bureau.

In the decades following the fire, additional steps were taken to institute national safety and health laws and regulations. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires employers to provide workplaces that are “free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.” It also established national standards to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers.

Many regulations are now in place for various workplace hazards and risks, including fire hazards. OSHA standards and industry consensus standards have and continue to establish requirements and best practices for establishing and improving an occupational safety and health management system.

It has now been more than a century since the fire. While much progress has been made toward improving working conditions, there is still more work to be done. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 1913, approximately 23,000 workers lost their lives on the job. Although that number has decreased significantly in the years since, BLS data shows that 5,333 people died on the job in 2019.

The Asch Building, which housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, still stands today in lower Manhattan and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1991. Groups such as the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition work to educate people about the fire and support remembrance activities. The group is also working to establish a permanent memorial to honor the victims.

Each year on March 25, we pause for a moment of silence to remember the lives lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and reflect on how we can continue to create safer and healthier workplaces for workers everywhere.

For learn more about the fire, visit Cornell University’s Triangle Factory Fire website.


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