Worker Safety and Pivotal Points in History

This Monday, September 5, is set apart to recognize the social and economic achievements of workers. Over 100 years ago, on September 5, 1882, the first Labor Day was observed in New York City. Although the founder of Labor Day is not exactly known, it is clear that the Central Labor Union adopted Labor Day as a holiday.

During this holiday, contemplate some significant events throughout the history of workers. For example, one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the history of the U.S. was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. This was a pivotal point in the history of workers and safety alike.

The factory, which occupied the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York City, employed about 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women who worked nine hours a day on weekdays plus seven hours on Saturday. On March 25, 1911, a fire flared up at approximately 4:40 PM in a scrap bin under one of the cutter’s tables on the 8th floor. A bookkeeper on the floor was able to warn employees on the 10th floor about the fire, but the news didn’t reach the 9th floor until the actual fire came. The floor had a number of exits, including two freight elevators, a fire escape, and stairways down to the Greene Street, but all were covered from flames. The other door, down to Washington Place, was locked by managers to prevent theft by the workers.

Within three minutes, the Greene Street stairway was unusable in both directions, from the fire and employees trying to escape to the roof. Almost 20 employees tried to exit using the fire escape, but fell nearly 100 feet to their deaths as the escape broke and fell to the ground. Other employees chose to jump from windows rather than face the fire. Bodies on the streets made it difficult for the fire department to even approach the building. And, when the fire department was finally able to reach the building, the firefighters discovered their ladders weren’t long enough to reach past the 6th floor.

In total, 146 workers died as a result of the fire. This event led to the formation of the American Society of Safety Engineers and modern safety & health as we know it today. It was an important step toward improving the lives of workers in every industry throughout the United States.