In the afternoon of March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. By the time the fire was put out, 146 workers were dead. Onlookers saw women, clothes on fire, hurl themselves out of the 8th and 9th floor windows. The 500 workers in the building were immigrants, mostly Italian and Jewish women. During the month of March we will remember them and the impact of the fire on American workplace safety.
The early 1900’s was a time of dramatic change in America. Business was booming and new immigrant workers were arriving by the boat loads, literally. Upton Sinclair, in his novel The Jungle, described the meat packing plants of Chicago. Men losing fingers and hands because of “the never-ending speeding up”. But even more dramatically, he described the unsanitary conditions of the food processing. The food coming from these abattoirs was literally killing America. The affects were wide spread. Reports from the War Department indicated that on any given day, 25% to 50% of WWI soldiers overseas were too ill to fight. Much of that sickness was attributed to canned meat rations that were contaminated with bacteria. What was the result? The FDA. Although we still have occasional outbreaks of food poisoning from our groceries, the situation is a thousand percent improved from a century ago.
Likewise, workplace safety has dramatically improved as a result of incidents like the Triangle fire. Injuries to fingers, toes, eyes, etc. are greatly reduced. Simple things like guards on saw blades and safety glasses are commonplace today. Nonetheless, people still get killed at work. Usually it’s because safety practices were not followed even though the company knew better. Just last year, 25 miners died in West Virginia because a mine was poorly ventilated; methane gas accumulated and exploded. The company knew of these conditions and did not correct them. This tragedy was preventable. Similarly , 25 workers were killed (and 54 severely injured) at the Imperial poultry plant in Hamlet, NC in 1991. A fire had started in a faulty hydraulic pump. The fire quickly spread due to oil naturally present in poultry processing. But you would think that in 1991, safety provisions would have allowed most workers to escape unharmed. Well, they would have except that the fire exits were all chained and locked. The bodies of the workers were found piled up in front of the doors. This brings us back to Triangle Shirtwaist. Most of the workers at Triangle could have escaped except that the doors in their factory were locked, to prevent workers from sneaking out for a cigarette. Workplace safety must be a partnership between workers and factory owners, but the fact is that business owners can save money by not adhering to safety practices. As long at that situation exists, there will be a temptation to put workers at risk. Therefore, we must be ever vigilant.
One of the many hats that I wear is National Co-Chairman of Social Democrats USA. Our organization is one of many sponsors of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. See the site rememberthetrianglefire.org.
The Jewish Labor Committee is also a sponsor of events related to the Triangle Fire. See the site jewishlaborcommittee.org. In addition to memorial events scheduled around the country, JLC is asking that congregations recite Kaddish for the victims of the Triangle Fire. Here in Carnegie, we will be doing that on Saturday, March 26.
Lastly, be aware that there is a television program about the fire scheduled for this coming Monday, Feb 28 at 9PM. It’s on WQED (PBS). See the site www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/triangle/.