Monday, March 21, 2011

100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: March 25, 2011

The U.S. Department of Labor and Industry has established a new interactive website commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire which began on March 25, 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City took the lives of 146 garment workers in a matter of minutes. It was the single deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City, and one of the worst in United States history. Most of the victims were recent immigrant women aged sixteen to twenty-three.

The Triangle Waist Company factory occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in New York City. Under the ownership of Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the company produced women's blouses, known as “shirtwaist.” The factory normally employed about 500 workers who were mostly young immigrant women.

At the end of the work day on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the factory. Although the cause of the fire has never been conclusively proven, the Fire Marshal determined that the likely cause of the fire was the disposal of a cigarette or match in a scrap bin, which then started on fire.

A bookkeeper was able to alert employees on the tenth floor via telephone, but there was no alarm on the ninth floor. The ninth floor had three exits, including a freight elevator, a fire escape, and stairways down to the Greene Street and Washington Place. Tragically, these exits were useless to the trapped workers. Flames prevented employees from descending the Greene Street stairway, and a foreman had locked the door to the Washington Street stairway. The foreman who had the key had already escaped by another route. Many employees escaped by going up the Greene Street stairway to the roof of the building. Other employees were able to escape in the elevators while they were still functioning.

After three minutes, the Greene Street stairway was unusable in both directions. An exterior fire escape twisted and collapsed from an overload of escaping employees, dropping victims 100 feet to their deaths. The elevators became unusable when the heat of the fire warped the rails, and victims jumped down the elevator shaft, piling up on top of the elevator car. Sixty-two people jumped or fell to their deaths from the burning building.

The rest of the victims were overcome by smoke and fire waiting for rescue. While the fire department arrived quickly, there were no ladders available that would reach above the sixth floor, and firefighters were unable to extinguish the blaze to enter the building.

Six victims remained unidentified until 2011.

The owners of the company, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were indicted on charges of first and second degree manslaughter, and their trial began on December 4, 1911. The jury acquitted the two men, in part because the prosecution failed to prove the owners knew the exit doors were locked at the time of the fire. In a subsequent civil suit against Blanck and Harris by survivors and the families of the victims, a jury awarded $75 per casualty. Amazingly, in 1913, Blanck was again arrested for locking the doors of his factory during working hours, and was fined $20.

Public outcry after this preventable tragedy spurred on the efforts of the labor movement, and was the catalyst for many pieces of legislation protecting the rights, health, and welfare of workers. New York City and New York State, over the next few years, adopted the country's strongest worker safety protection laws. Initially addressing fire safety, these laws eventually became model legislation for the rest of the country and state after stated enacted much more strict worker safety laws.

The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry was established as the Labor Statistics Bureau in 1887 to protect the rights of working people through the administration and enforcement of laws, rules, and regulations to foster safe and healthful working environments; to insure adequate compensation for work performed; to assist victims of occupational injury and illness; and to license and inspect establishments that use boilers and steam equipment. The department was known as the Labor, Industry and Commerce Bureau from 1907 to 1913 and then it became an official Minnesota state department and renamed the Labor and Industries Department. In 1913, Minnesota legislature passed the first workers’ compensation law. In 1925, the Labor and Industries Department became the Department of Labor and Industry.

If you’ve sustained a work-related injury in Minnesota, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. For a free, no-obligation consultation to learn about the workers’ compensation benefits you may be entitled to, contact Meuser & Associate at 877-746-5680 or click here to send us an email.

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