Americans have a passion for rights. Liberty, free speech and freedom of worship are embodied in our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. These documents define our relationship with our government. Americans also believe in—and have fought for—important workplace rights. We believe we have a right to equal treatment in the workplace regardless of our race, ethnicity, age and gender. We also expect to have a safe and healthy workplace.
In this lesson you will learn how one event that occurred more than a century ago – the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire – led to many of the worker health and safety protections that we have in the United States today. You will compare and contrast details of the Triangle Fire with a more recent incident concerning workplace safety. As a culminating activity, you will assess the potential costs, benefits and effectiveness of various government and labor actions that can be used to improve worker safety.
Activity 1: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
American workers at the beginning of the last century considered worker health and safety important. But they did not have the protections we have today. Many government rules taken for granted now – such as well-marked accessible exits, fire alarms, sprinklers, and ventilation systems - were not required in workplaces. While there were calls for federal occupational safety and health laws as early as 1878, government policy was generally hands-off when it came to the regulation of business. Labor unions – the organizations workers look to for protecting employee interests – existed but were often weak. The organization of women workers was just getting started.
All of this changed with the events that occurred in a New York City clothing factory on one warm Saturday afternoon. The date was March 25, 1911. To find out what happened, read:
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: 1911
The Triangle Fire was the worst industrial fire in U.S. history. No one can say there were no warnings that a fire like the one at the Triangle Factory might happen.
- First Warning-- In 1909 – New York City garment workers had a strike that was called the 'Uprising of the 20,000'--one of the largest strikes in the history of the city. Workers at the Triangle Factory were among those who went out on strike to protest sweatshop conditions -- long hours, low pay and unsafe working conditions. The strike lasted for three winter months. Triangle Factory owners hired new workers and called in thugs to break the picket lines. By the strike’s end, the women in some factories had won a shorter working day, a small pay increase, and some safety changes, but their union had not been recognized. This meant that the management did not have to talk with the union people. The Triangle Factory refused to make changes in safety and kept a 59-hour workweek.
- Second Warning-- Another warning came in 1910 -- just eight months after the New York City garment worker uprising. A fire in a Hackensack, New Jersey sweatshop killed 25 female workers. Most victims, like the Triangle workers, jumped to their deaths to escape the flames. After the Hackensack fire, a New York Fire Chief warned that the conditions in New York City were perfect for a similar or greater tragedy. Labor organizations demanded an investigation of all factory buildings and unsafe working conditions. But, the city took no action.
- The Aftermath-- Horrified by what happened at the Triangle Factory – the public cried out for better building safety codes and other worker protections to insure that such a disaster would not be repeated. Many of today’s health and safety protections can be traced back to the fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
Using this worksheet analyze the factors that contributed to the tragedy and how two institutions - government and labor - responded to worker safety. When you are finished, give your worksheet to your teacher.
Activity 2: Could It Happen Today?
Do you think anything like the Triangle Fire could happen today? Despite the many worker protections that grew out of the 1911 catastrophe, there are some situations that have eerie parallels.
Read one of the following cases and imagine you are a dissatisfied employee involved in the case. Be prepared to report your findings to the class. (Your teacher will give you instructions on which case to study.)
- Case 1: Wal-Mart Lock-Ins. 2003
Wal-Mart Stores Locked In Night Shift Workers with No Key
- Case 2: Imperial Foods Fire. 1991
Imperial Foods Processing Plant Fire
- Case 3: Kader Industrial Fire. 1993
Thai Toy Factory Fire
Source: World Socialist Web Site.
ILO Report on the Fire at the Kader Industrial Co. Ltd Factory
Source: International Labor Organization
Use the worksheet It Could Happen Today to analyze the problem and potential solutions that might PREVENT a tragedy in a similar situation. As you identify the pros and cons of each solution, be sure you consider the following:
- The willingness and ability of different interests - business, politicians, workers, consumers and taxpayers – to support and make changes
- The social and economic impact – intended and unintended – on these same interest groups
- The time and energy required to accomplish change
- How quickly change can be accomplished
- Whether the benefits are worth the costs
While it took time to get where we are today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was a clear turning point in U.S. labor history:
- The health and safety of American workers became an important goal. Government officials and the public at large were willing to accept the economic cost of the many state and federal guidelines that were established.
- Unions gained many new workers who wanted someone to fight for their health and safety among other rights. U.S. workers realized that there was strength in numbers when it came to dealing with their employers.
Unfortunately, the sweatshop conditions that existed at the time of the Triangle Fire have not totally disappeared. Factories with sweatshop conditions continue to operate in the United States and around the world – attracting workers in desperate need of employment. Workplace safety is an ongoing and complex problem. Answers require careful consideration of both social and economic factors – there is no one-size-fits-all solution for achieving change.
Assessment will be based on your work in the above activities.
- Read more about workplace safety protections. As a class, create a handbook or PowerPoint slide show that illustrates worker health and safety protections when on the job.
- Explore OSHA’s web site on Teen Worker Safety in Restaurants to learn more about common hazards and safety in the restaurant industry. Students can take a quiz to test their knowledge.
- Prepare historical markers for sites where tragic events have had an impact on worker health and safety. The marker should include a picture, a summary of the event and its implications for worker health and safety. Use this time line for information.