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ASSE Reflects on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Society Beginnings

Posted in on Fri, Mar 11, 2011

Late in the afternoon on March 25, 1911, it was almost closing time for garment workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, NY.  After a long day of cutting and sewing ladies’ shirtwaists, workers were ready to return home to their families and leave the work day behind.  Suddenly, the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch building were engulfed in flames. America was forever changed, and 146 garment workers lost their lives.  This was one of the deadliest workplace disasters in the history of the U.S.

When the fire began, an 8th floor employee telephoned the tenth floor to warn workers, but there was no fire alarm and no way to reach those on the 9th floor.  The factory owners had locked exit doors to prevent workers for taking extra breaks, fire escapes were unreliable and collapsed and the only fire extinguishers present were a few small buckets of water.  The fire spread rapidly and by the time workers on the 9th floor realized what was happening, the flames over took them.  Fire ladders were not tall enough to reach the upper floors of the building and fire nets were not strong enough to withstand the force of people jumping from such heights.  As they quickly realized there was no escape, 62 workers jumped to their deaths on the streets below, while horrified bystanders watched helplessly. Heroically, the elevator operator made several trips to try and rescue more of those stuck on the 9th floor, but as the flames progressed, more workers jumped to their deaths in the elevator shaft, the weight of the bodies preventing the operator from returning to the upper floors again.

Some workers were lucky and escaped down the stairs or up to the roof of the building and were helped over to the roof of a neighboring building to escape the flames. The Fire Marshal determined that the fire most likely began after a worker disposed of an un-extinguished match or cigarette in one of the company scrap bins. Workers regularly snuck cigarettes during work hours and the material used to make shirtwaist patterns and the garments themselves were highly flammable.  Locked exit doors, lack of a fire alarm, unreliable fire escapes and no proper fire extinguishing method were major contributors to the loss of life that occurred due to the fire.  This event forever changed the way we look at workplace safety and from this tragedy began the modern occupational safety and health movement.

After the Triangle fire, concern began to grow for the way America’s workers were being treated.  Labor unions became more active and public outcry at the lives unnecessarily lost was widespread.  On October 14, 1911, just a few short months after the tragedy, a small group of 62 people dedicated to protecting people, property and the environment joined together with the mission of creating safe workplaces for all.  The United Society of Casualty Inspectors, known today as the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), became the first true group of occupational safety and health professionals.

ASSE is currently celebrating its 100th Anniversary and a century of milestones in occupational safety and health since the terrible tragedy that sparked the society’s inception.  During the last 100 years, ASSE has grown from 62 members, to more than 32,000 safety and health professionals located all over the world.  Members participate in safety trainings, continuing education, activities to promote the annual North American Occupational Safety and Health (NAOSH) Week and many more activities for the benefit of raising awareness about the importance of being safe on the job.  During the past century, ASSE members have been a part of events such as World War II, the development of space technology and space travel, the Federal Highway Act of 1956, and the technological boom of the last 50 years.

The job of a safety professional is always changing.  As new technology and changes to the way we do businesses continue to evolve, so does the work of those who work tirelessly to protect workers.  Though the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was a great tragedy that still resonates to this day, out of that tragedy rose an organization with professional members who have contributed to the steep decline in workplace fatalities, injuries and illnesses during the last century.  For more information about ASSE, its mission and activities, please visit www.asse.org.  For more information about ASSE’s 100th Anniversary celebration and how you can get involved, please visit www.asse.org/CenturyofSafety.  You can also view ASSE’s new flim, ‘Celebrating a Century of Safety’ at http://www.asse.org/newsroom/100th-video.php and to files.me.com/cpcservice/dmrs8y.mov for the closed captioned version.   ASSE’s new web tool,‘This Month in Safety,’ also provides a look at safety milestones over the last 100 years and focuses on events that have impacted the occupational safety, health and environmental profession.  Visit http://www.asse.org/newsroom/monthinsafety.php to view March safety milestones from 1911 to the present.

Founded in 1911, the Des Plaines, IL-based ASSE is the oldest professional safety society and is committed to protecting people, property and the environment. Its more than 33,000 occupational safety, health and environmental professional members lead, manage, supervise, research and consult on safety, health, transportation and environmental issues in all industries, government, labor, health care and education. For more information please go to www.asse.org/newsroom.



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