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ASSE President-Elect Norris’ NY Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Centennial Event Address

Posted in on Sat, Mar 26, 2011




March 24, 2011, 6:00 p.m. To 10:00 p.m.

Keynote Speech by:




We are here tonight for 146 reasons — the 146 women and men that died horrifically in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 100 years ago. A fire that could have been prevented. They have left a powerful legacy and part of that legacy is the formation of the American Society of Safety Engineers born out of that fire.

I salute the victims of this fire… Sarah… Teddy…. Jennie… Annie… Bernice…. Lucy… Violet…. Jacob…. Julia…Rose… Isabella….just to name a few ..

We will never forget.

The victims of the Triangle fire — young and middle-aged– who on that Saturday just about 100 years ago were finishing up their work day, when tragedy struck. A fire occurred.
As the fire rapidly began to consume the top floors of the factory the workers tried desperately to escape.

However, workplace and fire safety measures were non-existent.

Doors were either locked…or opened inward. 

Fire escapes collapsed, melted. 

Fire ladders were unable to reach the upper floors. Those entrapped had no choice but to be consumed by the fire or try to escape. 

Many jumped to their deaths, their clothes on fire, with thousands watching in horror helplessly from the street below. Those onlookers watched above as the workers faces were pressed to the windows yelling for help. Soon, though, many would either crash out of the windows or jump down the elevator shaft to try to escape the flames.

Most of the causes of their deaths were listed as asphyxiation/burns … skull fracture or… multiple injuries.

The Triangle fire became one of the most devastating workplace disasters in American history. The victims, some as young as 14, are memorialized to this day.
Seven months after that tragedy and because of it, the American Society of Safety Engineers was born, as was the beginning of the modern safety movement.

Although a large number of work-related fatalities preceded it… it took the Triangle Fire to jar the country into meaningful action.

Soon after the fire, Work safety laws were passed – the first U.S. workers compensation laws were enacted in Wisconsin and New Jersey –

As we know, before this, work injury and death too often was considered the price of progress.  The International Ladies Garment Workers had fought for many years for safer working conditions for all factory workers and had just completed a major successful strike prior to the fire.

Another tragedy is that 100 years ago in 1911 more than two million American children under the age of 16 were working – many of them for 12 hours or more, six days a week for miniscule wages – some at the Triangle factory.

In the early 1900s young girls worked in mills, in danger of slipping and losing a finger or a foot while standing on top of machines to change bobbins; or of being scalped if their hair got caught;

In the coal mines it was reported, young ‘breaker boys’ could be smothered, or crushed, by huge piles of coal.

In addition to addressing the Triangle fire issues, when Congress created the U.S. Department of Labor in 1913, one of its primary goals was to address child labor and to eliminate illegal work practices.

It was noted that Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson (our first Secretary of Labor) was a ‘breaker-boy’ in the coal fields of Pennsylvania — born in Scotland, Wilson and his family emigrated to Arnot, a small coal mining village in Tioga County, Pennsylvania.  He received less than two years of formal schooling before joining his father in the mines, where he worked until he was 16. He and his wife Agnes had eleven children.

Wilson’s successor, James Davis had worked as a “puddler” boy in a steel mill in Pittsburgh…

This was reality.

It wasn’t until the Fair Labor Act of 1938 that minimum wage and limited age rules were enacted limiting the age of child labor to 16 and over and 18 for hazardous occupations… Today’s rules are stricter.

But let’s step back in time as to why we’re here tonight…

Out of the Triangle fire tragedy was born an organization destined to save lives…and help make lives safer for millions in the workplace.
On October 14th, 1911…the United Association of Casualty Inspectors was formed here in New York by insurance inspectors to work for a common goal – enhancing work safety. It was renamed in 1914 as The American Society of Safety Engineers. 
This you should know…

Today Millions go to work and leave injury and illness free to return home, owed in part to the safety, health and environmental professionals committed to identifying hazards and implementing safe procedures in all industries and all workplaces — protecting people, property and the environment –

Many of them are here tonight, members of ASSE, the New York City Chapter and surrounding chapters – they work to keep you and your families safe – no matter where they are

The Triangle victims left many legacies – one of them is ASSE and the work of safety professionals who are involved in designing risk out of the workplace, hazard recognition, fire protection, ergonomics, hazardous materials management, environmental protection, training, incident investigations, controlling health risks, emergency response, managing safety programs, safety audits, transportation safety, entertainment safety, and  more.  And it all started with the mission put forth by the founders of ASSE 100 years ago after the Triangle fire.

Early on, the safety movement was sporadic, practiced in some areas — for example in the early 1900s the California Railroad Commission was created to oversee rail safety, including roadway and rail crossings…yet, safety was nonexistent in too many other areas.

ASSE’s first chapters were formed in 1924 in New York City and Boston.

By the mid 1930’s, awareness began to take root through the work of safety professionals and decisive government actions designed to benefit the general public. 

In 1932 Frances Perkins was appointed U.S. Secretary of Labor.  Not only was she the first female cabinet member, but she had witnessed the Triangle Factory fire tragedy.  Perkins had worked for many years to protect workers… she would meet immigrant girls on the docks of Philadelphia as a young social worker to prevent pimps from recruiting them as prostitutes

Supported by many other organizations and ASSE, the Walsh-Healey Act, a bill proposed by Secretary Perkins, was passed in 1936, applying the first safety and health standards for employers receiving federal contracts.

 This helped spark attention to developing and implementing effective safety programs.

The safety movement continued to grow.  Companies began to catch on and implement new policies.  More work safety protections were invented and developed.

In the 1930s, ASSE worked with other organizations to develop several safety codes for ladders, piping systems, air machinery and equipment; and a threshold limit value was developed for chemicals. 

During WWII, many ASSE members fought in the war, supported the military efforts and came back armed with an awareness and knowledge of safety that was readily adaptable to civilian work…and life.

As businesses grew, companies began to see the benefits of safety such as more satisfied, healthy and proud employees, reduced health care and workers comp costs, reduced turnover, reduced business interruptions, and positive bottom line results.  Business found this also contributed greatly to managing their reputation.

As the world progressed with new inventions and products, so too did the safety professional.  Through the decades, safety began to grow in importance becoming ingrained in the fabric of smart businesses across the board.

In addition to contributing on an educational and professional level, ASSE, in working with several organizations, has advocated for further safety legislation.  ASSE helped develop and supported the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 which formed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, to enhance workplace safety and conduct research for the prevention of work-related injury and illness.
However, today 12 people are dying from work injuries in the U.S. alone each day and millions more are injured each year – this is enough people to fill up the Indianapolis Motor Speedway FIVE times. Too many.

While workers are more protected today, another unnerving fact remains:  the astronomical cost of unsafe working conditions, both tangible and intangible.

As we know, and witness it this week, grief is a very powerful emotion. Grief from losing a loved one or co-worker to an on-the-job fatality or injury.  Grief from the loss of 146 women and men in 1911 has grown stronger each year and has resulted in several positive changes with more to come.

From a cost standpoint, every year, according to OSHA, workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths cost the nation about $170 billion. However, you should know that for every dollar invested in a safety and health program, four to six dollars are saved because injuries, illnesses and fatalities decline, medical costs decrease and workers compensation costs go down…along with reduced absenteeism, lower turnover, higher productivity and increased employee morale.
It is vital today, and many companies are beginning to understand from both a business and humane perspective, that safety is good business and how a mistake can not only take lives, hurt families and the environment, it can destroy a company’s positive reputation worldwide – in the blink of an eye. 

Things have changed from a century ago with the help of safety professionals, the health, engineering, and scientific communities, regulators, the labor movement, government, international safety societies, and the insurance and risk management groups.  And more smart businesses of every stripe are becoming “safety sensitive,” keenly attuned to their own set of challenges.  

But despite the growth of safety awareness over the past decades… workplace catastrophes have occurred… and are still among us…such as the Idaho Falls nuclear reactor accident in 1961; the Imperial Foods Chicken Plant fire in 1991 in North Carolina;.. 9/11…; the Bhopal gas leak disaster in 1984; the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion on April 5, 2010, that killed 25 coal miners; and the Deep Water Horizon Gulf Oil explosion killing 11 workers last April …

However, through training, education, developing and implementing effective safety programs or simply reinforcing the rules, tragedy can be prevented…

Examples of success are many, projects as formidable as the construction of the St. Louis Busch Stadium, the New England Patriots Stadium, and the renovation of the Washington Monument were completed with no lives lost, thanks to dedicated management and worker collaboration, including ASSE members who developed and implemented the safety programs on each site.

These events only emphasize the ongoing need for safety professionals and the resources and education that ASSE and its members provide to workers, businesses and communities.
As we all know, when a project goes well or businesses continue their day to day operations without incident there are few headlines that say, “project completed without worker injuries, illnesses, or death”.  Ahh, the absent headlines.

But, we know.

Today, we continue to work to make sure another Triangle tragedy never occurs again.
ASSE has several proactive programs aimed at keeping people safe at work. From kids to ASSE student members to safety professionals, millions are doing their part to prevent injuries and illness – to save lives and keep families and friends intact. 

But there still is much work to be done, now and into the future.  We need everyone to work together.  Uncharted territories like nanotechnology continue to emerge, demanding new and different safety solutions.   

But whether it’s for today or the future, the goal is the same to protect people, property and the environment.

Let’s continue to work together so we, none of us, ever have to make the call to someone’s spouse, daughter, son, or parent…with the conversation that starts “we are very sorry to have to tell you…..”

We need to stand strong together to keep the Triangle victims’ legacy of work safety to continue.

Yes, we are a far cry from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory of 100 years ago, a tragedy that could have been prevented, but instead snuffed out the lives of 146 vibrant young women and men. 

ASSE and everyone in this room have worked to raise safety awareness in virtually every facet of our work and daily lives.  Safety products and practices are becoming second nature to many due, in part, to the dedicated safety, health, and environmental professionals, labor and many organizations.  Because of their work, most jobs are safer.  More enjoyable.  More rewarding.  Because of them, millions of families breathe easier knowing someone is watching out for their loved ones, so they can return home, safe and sound.

That is something to celebrate.  ASSE and its members will continue to remember the victims of the past and move to a future where such tragedies will be a very distant memory.

So to the descendants of the victims of the Triangle fire and the victims – Sonia, Samuel, Rosie, Julia, Ethel, Violet, Jennie, Lucy, Bernard, Tessie, Isabella…to name a few… and to ASSE’s 33,000 members located around the world and those here this evening…to the pioneers of the past…and future leaders, we salute you for a century of progress…And for what is safe to say, another century of great progress to come.

For the 146, it’s their legacy and we will proudly move it forward.

Thank you.



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