Historically Significant Workplace Accidents

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City caught fire. The blaze started in a rag bin while 600 workers sewed garments. Although the manager attempted to use the fire hose to extinguish it, the hose was rotten and the valve was rusted shut, so panic ensued.

The Triangle factory was owned by two corrupt businessmen, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, and it was located in the Asch Building in Manhattan. It was a true sweatshop that employed young immigrant women who worked in cramped lines at sewing machines.

Nearly all of the workers were teenage girls who worked 12 hours a day, every day, for $15 a week. In 1911, building safety features did not exist. There were nonworking elevators and two stairways to the street, but neither could be opened. The fire escape on the building was so narrow that it would have taken hours for all the workers to use it, even in the best of circumstances.

Unfortunately the danger of fires in factories like Triangle Shirtwaist was well-known, and Blanck and Harris already had a suspicious history. Many of their factories burned, and it was known that the owners committed arson in order to collect on large insurance policies. The fire of 1911 was not intentional, but lack of sprinkler systems and safety measures contributed to the tragedy.

In all, 145 girls died in a fire that lasted only 18 minutes. Many girls — 94 of them — threw themselves down the elevator shafts and out windows to their deaths. The 49 girls who fled via the stairwells found a locked door at the bottom of the stairs, and were burned alive. Two more died in the hospital.

After the fire, a workers’ union set up a march on New York’s Fifth Avenue to protest the conditions that had led to the fire; it was attended by 80,000 people. Despite the owners’ negligence, they were not indicted on manslaughter chargers. Still, the fire finally compelled the city to enact reforms. The Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law passed that October, and New York Democratic took up the cause of the worker and became known as a reform party. Because of this, future disasters were prevented.


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