This Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. When the top three floors of the factory caught on fire, 146 of the 500 employees at the factory lost their lives.
The wrongful deaths of so many innocent people instigated an enormous response, and the fire was influential in shaping the laws regarding workplace safety. Even though the fire did not happen in Ohio, workers everywhere benefited from the safety standards that were implemented.
The Triangle factory, like many factories at the time, had poor working conditions for their employees. The building was overcrowded and overheated, and workers were locked in the building during their shifts.
When the fire started, the workers were trapped inside the building. Many people were killed trying to force the locked doors open. Others jumped out open windows to avoid the engulfing flames. Some workers were killed when the fire escape they climbed onto collapsed under them. Most of the people who were trapped inside the building were burned beyond recognition.
In total, the fire burned in less than an hour, but the public’s response is still evident 100 years later. At the time, more than 100,000 people walked by the makeshift coffins in the street, and another 350,000 people marched through the city to protest the tragedy.
At the time of the fire, the technology to prevent and contain such fires already existed. Sprinkler systems, fire walls and stable fire escapes had been available for years, but many employers were unwilling to pay to install such safety features.
After the fire, laws regarding workers’ compensation and disability insurance became customary in many states, and FDR eventually signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into action. Although workers’ rights are still not always protected as well as they should be, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire went a long way in advocating for them.
Source: WYNC, “Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, 100 Years Later,” Caroline Cooper, 21 March 2011