Normally the charred death of workers during an avoidable sweatshop fire would stoke one’s memory. But we live in a world where human memory burns out if not aided by electronic stimulation and full scale reenactment.
It has been 100 years since the Triangle Waist Shirt Company extinguished the lives of 147 predominantly Jewish and Italian women and children. Many immigrants to the new land leapt to their death to avoid incineration. Some of the bodies were burnt beyond recognition. The owners – who were involved in four previous fires – were acquitted.
The Triangle disaster overshadows garment fires in New York City in 1957 and 1958 that killed 15 and 24 people, and the 1991 North Carolina food processing plant fire that killed 25 trapped workers.
Back in 1911, firemen were frustrated by their inability to reach victims. Ladders could not reach the top floor of the Triangle building. Nets failed to curtail the impact of death swoons. Five women urged firefighters to find safe refuge before they plummeted to their death as one. Many workers simply couldn’t hold on after the heat melted their grip on window ledges.
This was not a horror from the world at war, but a consequence of obscene working conditions reminiscent of a scene ripped from The Jungle. This was before the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union was formed, prior to the New Deal, and well before the birth of Smokey the Bear in 1944.
The Yiddish newspaper – The Forward – described a particularly harrowing scene in detail.
A thirteen year old girl stood by the 10th story window, hanging onto the wooden ledge with her slender fingers. Her entire body hung in the air. She held on that way for three minutes. At that point, a tongue of flame began burring her fingers, and she let go of the window and fell.
This event preceded a commitment to protect and educate children. This was New York City on March 27, 1911. This was America when human beings were expendable, intangible assets.
But this was also the Progressive Era populated by trust busting politicians who responded with investigations, commissions and new legislation. America continued its determined march towards defeating avoidable and tragic workplace fires through the Twentieth Century.
President Johnson signed the Fire Research and Safety Act of 1968. President Nixon followed suit in 1971 by appointing a Commission to study fire hazards. The Commission published “America Burning” on May 4, 1973 which contained the grim conclusion that America had one of the highest fire death rates in the industrialized world. As a result, Congress enacted the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974, and created the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration.
Fire safety is a non partisan issue, but commonsense regulations only work if they exist and are enforced. In 2003, Arthur Cote, the head of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), reminded us:
NFPA [National Fire Protection Association] codes for fire safety in the workplace are stricter today, but there is no clear way to demonstrate with existing fire data that actual industrial practices are markedly better than a century ago.
One exception is the use of sprinklers, where manufacturing properties have shown some improvement (up from 45 percent of reported fires being in sprinklered properties in 1980 to 51 percent in 1997) and significant impact (civilian deaths per fire were 49 percent lower in 1988 through 1997 when sprinklers were installed in manufacturing facilities).
….OSHA and the US labor movement, both strong champions of a safer industrial workplace in years gone, have been substantially weakened in recent years. (Basics of Fire and Fire Science: Part 1, p. 28)
Of course, America no longer needs unions, and we can take comfort in the invisible hand of Adam Smith and the good will of the captains of industry to put out industrial fires and manufacture safe consumer products.
The flammable mixture of poverty and incendiary working conditions that led to the Triangle Fire in 1911 has been supplanted by a lethal mix of economic desperation, political opportunism, and public apathy.
The U.S. Fire Administration reported that Pennsylvania suffered a fire death rate of 11.3 per million in 2002 or a national ranking of 27.
In 2004, Pennsylvania suffered the highest number of firefighter deaths in the nation when 17 firefighters perished in the line of duty.
By 2007, Pennsylvania’s fire death rate increased to 19.2 people per million or the 12th highest fire death rate. The national average was 13.2 fire deaths per million.
Just five years ago, Pennsylvania had the highest rate of fire-related fatalities in college dorm rooms. We passed a sprinkler requirement for dorm rooms in 2008. Since that time, deaths by fire in college rooms have dropped to zero.
If we mandate sprinklers in the workplace with life-saving results, why would we exclude the device from our homes? Industrial trends clearly demonstrate the efficacy of sprinklers in saving the lives of workers, homeowners and their families, and firefighters.
While we may view the tragic deaths of 147 workers a century-ago as a regrettable historical fact, why do we accept the fire deaths of Pennsylvanians as an acceptable condition?
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