One hundred and forty six garment workers died on March 26, 1911 in a fire that was New York’s deadliest workplace disaster until the attack on the World Trade Center 100 years later. Fire doors were locked. Trapped workers either jumped to their deaths from the 9th and 10th floors, or were consumed by the flames of the Asch Building (renamed the Brown Building and now owned by New York University) at Washington Place and Greene St. near Greenwich Village. Over 20,000 people walked in the funeral procession to honor those workers who lost their lives, many of them young immigrant women who barely spoke English.
Over the last 100 years, although workplace safety regulations were created to prevent such disasters, they still occur.
In the book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. (Grove Press, 2003) by David Von Drehle, the horrific workplace conditions of 1911 were described on page 3:
…the 146 deaths at the Triangle Waist Company were sensational, but they were not unusual. Death was an almost routine workplace hazard in those days. By one estimate, one hundred or more Americans died on the job every day in the booming industrial years around 1911. Mines collapsed on them, ships sank under them, pots of molten steel spilled over their heads, locomotives smashed into them, exposed machinery grabbed them by the arm or leg or hair and pulled them in… workplace safety was scarcely regulated, and workers’ compensation was considered newfangled or even socialist.
Over the last 100 years, although workplace safety regulations were created to prevent such disasters, they still occur. For example, twenty-five workers died in Hamlet, NC in 1991 when fire doors were locked. In 1993, nearly 200 workers at a toy factory in Bangkok died when fire doors were locked. In West Virginia and China miners have died in collapsed mines; in Louisiana oil rigs have exploded and killed workers; and all over the world the scourge of asbestosis dust from pipe insulation continues to cause disability and death.
Safety regulations, without enforcement, are worthless. In these dark economic times, employers and the government look for ways to save money and reduce cost and are tempted to cut back on safety. Some claim that enforcement of safety regulations will be too expensive and labor-intensive. To the contrary, because of the increased threats to worker safety, efforts in enforcement should be increased, not decreased, and as a society if we fail to do our utmost to protect workers with reasonable safety regulations, we will slowly but surely drift back to the horrible conditions of 1911. Should we allow that to happen?