Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
March 25th of 1911 was among the darkest days in the American history. It involved a fire accident that claimed lives of over 145 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City. The tragedy paved the way for provision of several laws meant to protect and enhance safety among factory workers. The factor was owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck who had other factories producing similar products. The factory was located at the top three floors of a 10-story Asch Building, located in downtown Manhattan. Space was cramped coupled with poor working stations and poor immigrant workers. The workers were not fluent in English and thus a communication barrier ensued. The factory owners had a history of fires in their other factories; Diamond Waist Company factory burning in 1907 and 1910. The fire origin was suspiciously blamed on the owners who supposedly wanted to reap from a large fire-insurance policy they had signed (Kwiatoski 11). This write-up expounds on the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire incident and gives insights on what happened, the good and the bad practices embraced by the company and how the situation was to be fixed.
The factory had 600 workers at the time of tragedy and women were burned alive in the factory, other women jumped from the eighth-floor to their death and others were trapped on the staircases and were burned alive. The firefighters tried to put off the fire but the jumping workers made it difficult. The owners of the factory were present during the fire and they hopped to the adjoining building from the top floor where they were. The fire lasted for about half an hour but the casualties were many including 49 workers killed in the factory by fire, 36 died in the elevator, and 58 workers piled up dead on the sidewalks. This incident was followed up with an April 5 protest that attracted over 80,000 people.
When and where?
The fire incident happened in downtown Manhattan, New York City where over 600 workers were congested in a small working space on top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building. The fire happened on the 25th Saturday of March of 1911 in the afternoon from 4:40 PM Eastern Time. The Asch building is situated on the corner of Green Street and the Washington Place. It is currently known as Brown Building found at 23-29 Washington Place and it acts as a section of New York University. The ten-story house had a narrow corridor that was connected to the one elevator that was usually closed (Greenwald 6). Most of the victims were women who perished due to smoke inhalation, fire and jumping or falling to death. There were 23 men and 123 women, most of them young Jewish and Italian immigrant workers between ages 16 to 23 years. The fire incident arose from a scrap bin placed under one of the cutter’s table located at the northeast corner in the eighth floor.
What the bad things?
The incident had several bad things that could be prevented. The proprietors had a habit of closing the workers in the factory in the name of preventing them from stealing or going for unscheduled breaks. The deadliest industrial disaster in the US history was exacerbated by lack of adequate emergency exits. The stairwells and exits were locked in accordance to the common practices during that era where employers prevented workers from escaping and theft. The practice forced most workers to be enclosed in the factory leading to jumping over the high windows as the escape route. The factory was employing 500 employees but on it had exceeded by 100 making it overcrowded (Kwiatoski 11).
The fire flared up at around 4:40 PM from a scrap bin and the first fire alarm was send at 4:45, this delay further allowed fire to spread and become uncontrollable. The fire alarm was raised by a passerby who saw smoke emanating from the eighth floor. This indicates that there were no fire extinguishers in the factory and neither was there an audible fire alarm. The there factory had banned cigarette smoking but cutters were used for smuggling cigarettes and matchboxes. Exhaling of smoke was done through lapels to avoid being noticed. It is also reported that the floor was filled with “hundreds of pounds of scraps” that were left after thousands of shirtwaists were cut at the table (Kwiatoski 11). The pile of scraps was estimated to be a heap of over two months. The scraps were not emptied regularly and the hanging fabrics surrounding the tables further fueled the fire. Of all the materials in the factory, only the steel rim was less flammable. The uncollected scraps, smuggled cigarettes and matchboxes point to a loose security.
The design of the factory was not work-friendly. This is supported by the facts that there were four elevators but only one was operational. There were two staircases that connected the floor to the other floors but one was locked that led outside the building. The other staircase was internal and workers jammed and were burned alive. The flames prevented workers from using the stairway to the Greene Street stairway that led to the exit of the building. The escapees went up the stairs to the roof of the house where the managers and their family members were. The fire escape was narrow and thus it could not be used by all employees (Says 6).
The court case was biased as the prosecution acquitted the two owners of first- and second-degree manslaughter. Awarding the plaintiffs $75 was mockery as the two owners gained around $60,000 more than the reported losses from the insurance company. Subsequent crimes including locking of workers in the factory led to mere $20 fine in 1913, an incident that could lead to loss of lives.
What the good things?
The fire incidence caused several good things, some including safety policies, legislations and building safety measures that have reduced occurrences of fire incidences. The massacre of Triangle Shirtwaist led to creation of the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law that was enacted to prevent similar fire and other associated disasters (Says 6). There were new laws that mandated better building egress and access, availability of fire extinguishers and fireproofing requirements and provision of automatic sprinklers and alarm systems. There were over sixty-four new laws recommended by the Commission and implemented through the legislature (OSHA 1).
The building had adequate facilities for evacuation in case of an emergence but they were not fully operational. The closing of staircases and having only one of the four elevators working caused the high number of deaths. If the several exits created were operational, then the casualties would be fewer. The building safety measures were advanced and strict adherence ensures fewer incidences arise (Greenwald 10).
The fire incidence led to organization of workers to demand their rights, work as a union, and better-working conditions. There was a large protest organized by workers and human right activists on April 5 along the New York Fifth Avenue where over 80,000 people merged to protests over the fire incident. A Triangle Fire Coalition was formed to commemorate the fire incidence where hundreds of schools, churches, fire houses and individuals across the nation joined. The incidence led to the nation honoring the victims, affirming dignity of all workers, value for women’s work and inspiring safety and social justices for workers.
Who to fix that?
The nation should act in unity to fix the mess and prevent future occurrences. The New York State Legislature and the National Congress had legislations to prevent fires and other disasters from labor establishments. Hostory.com (2) argued that the city government had a notoriety of corruption and would not heed any precaution recommended to prevent fires. Strict adherence to laws and regulations by the city and the Congress should prevent future incidences. The relevant authorities including city fire brigade, disaster management and construction authorities should take responsibility and ensure the disaster is cleaned-up and all the necessary precautionary measures are adhered to (Greenwald 13). The people and the labor unions along with other associations have a role to play on ensuring employers stick to the stipulated measures. If there were proper and operational emergence exits, the casualties would have been fewer.
Greenwald, Judy. “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Brought Safety Changes. (Cover Story).”Business Insurance 45.11 (2011): 1-18. Business Source Complete. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.
History.com, “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City” Accessed fromhttp://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/triangle-shirtwaist-fire-in-new-york-city
Kwiatoski, Debbie. “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Marks 99Th Anniversary.” HudsonValley Business Journal 21.15 (2010): 11. Regional Business News. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.
OSHA. “The triangle shirtwaist factory fire.” Accessed fromhttps://www.osha.gov/oas/trianglefactoryfire.html
Says, Sandy. “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory: Lessons Still To Be Learned.” EHS Today 7.4 (2014):6. Business Source Complete. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.