Why We Remember the Triangle Factory Fire

Levi Strauss & Co.
March 25, 2011

If you have a good job – decent hours, safe working conditions, health benefits – it’s easy to take it for granted. But today might be a good day to give it some thought and recall when worker rights weren’t as common as they are today.

Why today?

This is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire – one of the deadliest industrial accidents in the history of the U.S. On March 25, 1911, 146 women and men garment workers died in the fire, either from the blaze and smoke or from jumping to their deaths out windows or down the elevator shaft.

The Triangle Factory was on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors – the three highest floors – of a Greenwich Village building. Most of the victims were young immigrant women, and many were teenagers. They worked long hours, six days a week, for very little pay.

While some escaped the fire, the 146 who did not were trapped – a result of locked doors and no fire safety precautions. The doors that weren’t locked opened only inwards and were effectively held shut by the rush of workers trying to escape.

In fact, at the time of the fire, according to reports, the only safety measures available for the workers were a few buckets of water and a fire escape that collapsed when it was used.

In the aftermath, the New York Fire Department later identified more than 200 factories with fire hazards similar to those at the Triangle Factory. And the New York State Legislature helped modernize the state’s labor laws, making it one of the most progressive states in terms of labor reform.

Also as a result of the fire, my organization, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), was founded that same year in New York City by a group of safety and insurance professionals dedicated to protecting people, property and the environment.

Today, ASSE has more than 33,000 occupational safety, health and environmental professional members worldwide – people whose job is to help others work safely and free of illness.

Over the years, the annual number of workplace fatalities has been declining, but still measures in the thousands. On average, twelve people a day die from workplace injuries. At the same time, millions more workers are injured on the job or sustain job-related illnesses each year.

The ASSE continues to work with employers, employees, regulators, lawmakers and others to increase workplace safety for all – no matter where that workplace may be.

Today, New Yorkers and people around the world, including members of the American Society of Safety Engineers, will mark the Triangle Fire’s hundredth anniversary. Many will gather outside the building where the fire occurred. As we remember those who lost their lives, it’s important to note the improvements that have come as a result.

The Triangle Factory Fire – as tragic as it was – did not happen in vain. It resulted in improved workplace conditions around the world, but we’re not done yet. I’m proud to say that the legacy of the 146 fire victims lives on in the work the people of ASSE do, every day.

Keeping the workplace safe is just as important now as it was 100 years ago.