The deadliest industrial disaster in New York City history was over in less than half an hour, and upon its 100th anniversary, historians and labor rights advocates are honoring the young workers lost to the tragedy and the changes in American labor law it sparked. This month, labor advocates are commemorating the anniversary of the fire and examining how life has changed for the American worker.
The scene was truly horrifying: panicked workers fled to factory exits only to find them locked. Surging crowds bottlenecked at narrow exit doors that only opened inward. Desperate to escape the flames, workers flung themselves out eighth and ninth story windows and down an empty elevator shaft. Many of those who made it to the flimsy, poorly designed fire escape were thrown to the ground when it melted from the heat and collapsed.
Today, the Triangle Factory disaster is remembered as a pivotal moment in American history that led to the transformation of New York’s labor legislation and served as a model for the entire nation. The incredible number of workers who died during the devastating fire was exceptional, but, at the turn of that century, dying at work was not an uncommon occurrence. By one estimate, more than 100 Americans died on the job every day during the hyper, unregulated industrial years of the early 20th century. However, unlike other workplace disasters that were followed by shock and outrage but quickly forgotten, the Triangle fire marked an important turning point in the way the way the country thought about a worker’s right to safety.
Following the fire, forward-thinking citizens, politicians, and organizations immediately began working for permanent changes in worker safety laws.
- The National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL) was at the forefront of pushing legislative changes. The NWTUL sent out a questionnaire to factory workers that documented the deplorable conditions workers were forced to endure, and sent the results to local papers. The NWTUL formed the Citizen’s Committee for Public safety and urged the state legislature to form a Bureau of Fire Prevention
- Facing pressure from the NWTUL and continued public outcry, the New York legislature created the New York State Factory Investigating Committee which passed legislation requiring that all doors open outwards, sprinkle systems be installed in certain factory buildings, no doors could be locked during working hours, and made fire drills mandatory for buildings without sprinklers
- With the lessons learned from the Triangle fire, the New York City Fire Department was able to identify more than 200 factories with safety issues that could lead to a similar disaster
- The American Society of Safety Engineers, committed to protecting people, property, and the environment, was created eight months after the fire.
Among those who worked tirelessly to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again was NCL Executive Secretary, Frances Perkins. At the time of the fire, Perkins was having tea a few blocks away and reached the factory in time to witness garment workers jumping to their deaths. Perkins was instrumental in reforming working conditions, especially for women and children, as executive secretary to the Committee on Safety of New York. Perkins’ work after the fire marked the beginning of a lifetime dedicated to advocating for workers. In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed Perkins as his Secretary of Labor, making her the first woman in the United States to hold a Cabinet position—a position she held for 12 years.
A century later, the legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire remains as relevant as ever. While it may be tempting to look back at the shameful working conditions of the time as simply a thing of the past, in light of today’s recent oil and mining disasters, as well as the union busting going on across the country, how much progress has the worker truly made in the last 100 years?