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Historic Fire Spurred Struggle for Worker Safety

By Louise Fenner | Staff Writer | 26 March 2012
Horse-drawn fire engines spraying water at burning building (Public domain)

Fire fighters struggle to extinguish the fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which occupied the top three floors of this building.

Washington — The terrible events at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City still resonate 101 years later. 

The fire that killed 146 people in less than 20 minutes "led to some of the nation's strongest changes in worker safety in the manufacturing industry," the U.S. Labor Department says on a website that commemorates the tragedy. 

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the factory, where hundreds of women, mostly immigrants from Europe, were working as seamstresses. The factory owners had locked most of the exit doors to prevent theft. The one fire escape ladder collapsed under the weight of the women who poured onto it. People jumped from the burning building, plunging 100 feet to their deaths, and others burned to death. 

“It is an important story,” U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said at a March 25 commemoration in New York. “On that spring afternoon, the sound of frantic screams and wailing fire truck bells awakened the conscience of America.”

The Department of Labor is encouraging people to visit a website that tells about the fire and the conditions American workers faced in the early 20th century.

THE FIRE’S LEGACY

At the turn of the 20th century in the United States, workers had few rights. Many endured difficult and dangerous conditions, grueling hours and low wages. Most did not belong to unions.

The garment workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory produced a popular tailored woman’s blouse called a shirtwaist. The three factory floors, which were on top of a 10-story building, were littered with flammable materials that fed the fire. Although horse-drawn fire trucks rushed to the scene, the ladders could not reach beyond the sixth floor. The death toll of 146 included almost one-third of the workers in the factory that day.

The fire spurred reform efforts by groups such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and a young social worker named Francis Perkins, who later became the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of labor. New York City and New York state, over the next few years, adopted the country's strongest worker-safety laws, which eventually became model legislation for the rest of the country.

As labor secretary, Perkins helped create unemployment insurance, the minimum wage and the legislation that guarantees the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. She influenced states to strengthen enforcement of labor laws and was the principal architect of the Social Security Act.

On the 100th anniversary of the fire in 2011, Solis said it is a reminder “of the importance of the work of the Labor Department. As we ensure that every company takes responsibility for the safety and health of its workers, the heartbreaking images from the fire are still relevant today.”

This year she reiterated that theme, saying, “We must always protect our most vulnerable workers; we must provide safeguards and a safety net for all workers; and, yes, we must ensure that all workers have a voice at the table.”

The building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory has been designated a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark.

See the Labor Department's website on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, as well as the mobile version, featuring an audio tour optimized for smartphones.

Close-up of Hilda Solis (AP Images)

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis