March 25, 2011 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 2Comment

The New York Times’‘ headline read: STREET STREWN WITH BODIES; PILES OF DEAD INSIDE. The article went on this way:

“Nothing like it has been seen in New York since the burning of the General Slocum. The fire was practically all over in half an hour. …it was the most murderous fire that New York has seen in many years. The victims…were mostly girls of 16 to 23 years of age. They were employed at making shirtwaists by the Traingle Waist Company. …Most of them could barely speak English. Most of them came from Brooklyn. Almost all were the main support of their hard-working families.” (March 26, 2011, p.1)

In an effort to help identify the many the victims, the paper published dozens and dozens of descriptions such as:

“Girl, 15 years; all clothing burned off except black stockings and black lace shoes.”

“Hungarian woman, 20 years old; 5 feet 4 inches – 120 pounds, blonde hair, died in St. Vincent’s Hospital.”

“Woman, 21 years, 5 feet; two rings, one with three small stones and another with three small white stones.”

“Woman, 30 years, red hair, 135 pounds, 5 feet 5 inches, turquoise earrings.”

It didn’t take long for investigators to identify the factors that contributed to the staggering death toll. An industrial engineer and a fire prevention expert, who were familiar with the building, had advised the factory owners to put in better emergency exits and conduct fire drills. H.F.J. Porter, the industrial engineer, told a NY Times’ reporter for a March 26, 1911 story:

“I don’t need to go down there. I know just what happened.”

Two years earlier P.J. McKeon, the fire prevention expert working for the factory’s insurer, had made an inspection of the factory. He told the New York Times he was struck by the large number of girls working in the sweatshop; no less than a thousand girls on the three upper floors.

“The place looked dangerous to me. …I even found that the door to the main stairway was usually kept locked. I was told that this was done because it was so difficult to keep track of so many girls.”

It took 100 years to track the last of the victims. Amateur historian and researcher Michael Hirsch just recently confirmed the identity of the final six.

Programs marking the 100th anniversary of Triangle have been taking place all month. A symposium at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center will explore the disaster’s legacy, including the creation of the State’s Factory Investigating Commission and subsequent factor safety laws. The symposium participants will also examine its meaning today, in 2011.

“Triangle is an old story, one about a century ago, it is also a very current story. While the United States was successful, at least for a while, in eliminating the worst abuses of the sweatshop era and improving the lives of its working people, there are millions of workers today who face conditions not unlike those faced by the Triangle workers. What people sometimes refer to as the global sweatshop is a vast archipelago of workplaces, in many of which young female workers toil long hours in dangerous conditions, very often without union representation or democratic rights. The problem of how to regulate the workplace and create a safe, decent life for working people is with us today, just as it was at the time of the Triangle Fire.”

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) remembers on its website the 146 Triangle Waist factory workers, and notes the fire’s connection to Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. At a 1964 lecture, Perkins describes how she witnessed the disastrous event:

“I remember that, the accident happened on a Saturday, I happened to have been visiting a friend on the other side of the park and we heard the engines and we heard the screams and rushed out and rushed over where we could see what the trouble was. We could see this building from Washington Square and the people had just begun to jump when we got there. They had been holding until that time, standing in the windowsills, being crowded by others behind them, the fire pressing closer and closer, the smoke closer and closer.”

OSHA’s website gives credit to Perkins for pushing labor reforms: “…something must be done. We’ve got to turn this into some kind of victory, some kind of constructive action.” The reforms came, especially because workers, many who were immigrants, marched in the streets to demand better working conditions.

As a tribute to the victims of the Triangle fire, the Service Employees’ International Union offers an infographic illustrating the specific workplace safety improvements put in place because of the 1911 disaster. These include rules for maximum occupancy, fire drills and access to fire exits. But some of us fail to learn these lessons.

On January 14, 2010, OSHA announced $233,500 penalty against the retail store Home Goods for serious hazards including blocked fire extinguishers and fire exits. Few will recall that the citations were upheld, but the penalty reduced to $124,950. Hopefully, most will remember that OSHA chief David Michaels compared the situation to the 1911 Triangle fire: “Blocked fire exits can be deadly. It is that simple.”

2 thoughts on “100 years ago today, 146 workers killed in NYC garment factory

  1. My apartment building locks the fire escape doors on the 2nd and 3rd floor. I could complain, but have tussled with landlords before and know how nonexistent tenant protections are against retaliation. So I can’t even risk reporting it.

    The more we our society becomes a plutocracy (“laissez-faire free market”), the more we all fucked.

  2. In most cities, and counties the fire or building inspection departments will take tips anonymously simply because they realize that landlords can intimidate tenants. They also realize that calling in inspectors is a common tactic to harass landlords. Most will do a quick inspection just to find out what is going on. Once a complaint is in their system as valid they usually carry forward with further inspections, threats, and fines as necessary to gain compliance.

    Most I know, I’ve known three pretty well, are willing to work with landlords and are fairly sympathetic as long as progress is being made in the the right direction. They realize that substandard construction and situations are long term problems that aren’t going to be corrected overnight. They are often willing to overlook minor issues for a time as long as major issues, like fire exits and smoke alarms, are taken care of and there is a demonstrated willingness to continue improvements.

    They tend to save the ‘Hammer of God’ tactics for landlords that simply refuse to make important changes, and those who make changes but backslide.

    If the fire doors are locked you might even try talking to the local fire department. They can often get the inspectors better ear and get the paperwork moving in the right direction. Most firemen would rather work on getting hazards corrected, even if it means pushing papers, than carry out bodies. Many fire departments have inspectors on their staff, some FDs do the inspections, and all of them have contacts within the organization/s doing building inspection and codes enforcement.

    Work the system.

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