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Past and Present

How A Devastating Tragedy Led To Real Workplace Reform

Kheel Center / Flickr / Creative Commons

In the afternoon of March 25, 1911, the New York City fire department answered a call from Greenwich Village and found smoke billowing out of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that occupied the top floors of the Asch Building.

Credit Robin Henry / KMUW
The building today

As smoke turned to fire, a crowd gathered below to watch as the firefighters attempted to put out a fire that had grown beyond the reach of their equipment. Inside, fear and panic mounted as the largely female workforce found their escape blocked by the fire, and the doors locked by managers who thought the women took too many breaks.

In the end, the accidental fire claimed the lives of 146 workers and injured 71. Workers, labor union activists, city officials, and the general public were horrified.

City officials acted quickly, having faced months of pressure from unions to regulate factory safety and sanitary conditions in order to avoid just this type of tragedy. In a rare moment of political harmony, New York City's newly formed Committee on Public Safety and the Factory Investigating Commission worked with the state legislature in Albany and the political bosses of Tammany Hall to address concerns over workers’ hours and workplace safety.

The city and state-wide efforts to identify hazardous buildings and work-place safety and sanitary issues resulted in public hearings and 60 new laws that established fireproofing codes for buildings, and required factory owners to install fire extinguishers, escape ladders, alarm systems and sprinklers.

By 1913, New York was not only the nation’s leading industrial city, but had also transformed into a leader of workplace reform.

Credit Robin Henry / KMUW