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Annals of Comp: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
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Annals of Comp: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

This week is the 106th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. The fire in the Asch office building killed 146 people, mostly young women, mostly recent immigrants. Workers were trapped on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of a high-rise factory in Greenwich Village. Fire exits were locked (to prevent theft) and the one rickety fire escape collapsed under the weight of fleeing workers. Fire trucks were useless, as their ladders only reached the 6th floor.

The tragedy led to considerable soul searching, including the development of fire safety regulations, first in New York, and then in other states. New York passed the nation's first workers comp statute in 1911, but the law was struck down by the state’s Court of Appeals, which found the statute in violation of employer’s due process rights. It took an amendment to New York’s constitution before the workers’ compensation statute was finally implemented in 1914.

The More Things Change...

It would be comforting to think that the days of harsh working conditions and indifference to safety standards were all behind us. Dream on, fellow dreamers. Bloomberg News presents the dark side of economic growth in Alabama, where the auto industry has sunk deep roots fueled by tax incentives and the "cheap" labor that comes with an under-educated workforce. Everything has its price, and in Alabama people have paid literally with life and limb to maintain aggressive production quotas in auto-related industries.

There are those who believe that government should have a very low profile when it comes to regulating industry and ensuring safe workplaces. The role of OSHA is being deconstructed as we write.The Triangle fire and the under-reported mayhem in Alabama are stark reminders that some form of government oversight and regulation will always be needed.

A footnote on the Triangle Fire: The Asch Building was constructed to sophisticated fire resistant standards. Had the working conditions been less crowded, had the doors not been locked and had the fire escape been built to withstand the heat, many of the victims might have survived. The building is now part of New York University's school of arts and science: humane use for an infamous landmark haunted by voiceless fear and suffering.

Photo: Public domain, see PBS Triangle Shirtwaist Fire photo gallery

Jon Coppelman
Senior Workers Compensation Consultant

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