Worker Safety - The Triangle Fire Legacy


This lesson printed from:

Posted April 6, 2004

Standards: 10, 15, 16, 17

Grades: 6-8, 9-12

Author: Patricia Bonner

Posted: April 6, 2004

Updated: May 12, 2014


The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 was a turning point for employee health and safety protections in the U.S. Students investigate the Triangle tragedy and how its impact is still felt today. Students identify eerie parallels between the Triangle Fire and more recent workplace events with safety implications – recent complaints of Wal-Mart employee lock-ins, a deadly fire in a North Carolina poultry processing plant in 1991, and a 1993 fire in a Thailand toy factory given the sad distinction of most deadly industrial fire in the world. How can future tragedies be prevented in the workplace? Students assess the costs, benefits and effectiveness of various government and labor actions. They discover that worker safety is a complex issue and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.


Benefit, Cost/Benefit Analysis, Costs, Labor, Labor Union, Role of Government, Special Interest Group


  • Provide examples of health and safety protections in the workplace.
  • Make connections between past events and present laws that protect the health and safety of workers.
  • Analyze government and organized labor solutions to a workplace safety concern.
  • Recommend a solution to a workplace safety problem.
  • Identify actions individuals can take on their own to reduce the chance of injury or death on the job.


Provide students with a copy of the handout Worker Rights in America. Instruct students to assess the importance of the worker rights listed. Remind them to identify the one worker right that they think is most important and to give the reason for their choice on the back of their paper.

fireFor each worker right, tally the number of students who responded a worker right was “3 - very important” or “4- essential”. Calculate (or have students calculate) the proportion of students who chose these responses. Record percentages next to the worker responses on a transparency of the AFL-CIO Survey Results. Project the transparency and tell students that the AFL-CIO funded a study in 2001 asking American workers similar questions.


  1. What rights did the class view as important? Why?
  2. What rights did the class view as less important? Why?
  3. Is there one category of rights - economic security, equal treatment or reasonable working conditions – that was generally rated more important than the others?
  4. Is there one category that was generally rated less important?
  5. What are the similarities and differences between the students' opinions and those of the workers? What might account for the differences? [In the survey, the desire for more worker protections was particularly strong among workers of color, immigrants, low-income workers and those with less than a college education. Age, gender and experience in the workplace may also account for differences.]

Announce to students that they are going to explore a right that American workers in the survey almost unanimously (98%) identified as very important or essential – a safe and healthy workplace. They are going to learn about existing worker health and safety protections, desires for new protections, and how protections are achieved.

[NOTE:The lesson assumes that students have a basic understanding of the function and tools of labor unions. If this is not the case, have the students use a dictionary, textbooks, or other reference materials to develop a simple definition of a labor union. Sufficient for this lesson is recognition that:

  • A labor union is an association of workers who use their collective strength to negotiate with employers for higher wages, fringe benefits, job security and improved working conditions.
  • Unions have developed various methods for dealing with employers when collective bargaining fails. One of the most common methods is the strike – members refuse to work until union demands are met. Another approach is the boycott - a refusal to purchase or handle the products of a struck firm or industry. General public willingness to join a boycott is often critical to this technique’s effectiveness.
  • In some situations, union members also use their collective strength to influence public policies of interest to workers. Labor organizations have lobbied at every level of government for worker rights.]



[NOTE: Some teachers prefer to print and distribute copies of worksheets versus having students print out their own copies.]

Activity 1: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Print out and distribute or have students read report on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and complete the worksheet Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. They must analyze the factors that contributed to the tragedy and how two institutions – government and labor – responded to worker safety concerns both before and afterwards.

Students may use the following websites to complete their worksheets:
History Buff
Women's History

Students are instructed to give the worksheet to you upon completion. Check student answers using the attached answer sheet.

Activity 2: Could It Happen Today?

Divide the class into small groups of 3-5 students. Have each group read the background information on one of the cases – all are recent incidents that have eerie parallels with the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. It is okay, in fact, useful for more than one group to be assigned the same case.

Students are instructed to imagine they are a dissatisfied employee in the cases they have just read. They are then directed to:

  • Summarize the problem – noting similarities and differences between the case and the Triangle Fire
  • Analyze actions of government and organized labor for resolving the problem BEFORE a tragedy occurs
  • Choose what they view as the best solution for the problem.
  • Consider actions individuals might take to avoid death and injury on the workplace that do not require collective action through labor or government.

The worksheet It Could Happen Today is provided as a framework for their work. To encourage individual contributions and differing perspectives, give students time to jot down their own responses before they share ideas with their group. Reinforce the need for students to record answers on their worksheets as they will be expected to present their findings to the class.

When students have completed their analysis, have groups present brief oral reports of their case problem and the approach they have chosen to resolve the problems to the rest of the class.

In addition to the links already provided for the Triangle Fire, students will use the following links for information on their cases.

As students make their presentations, emphasize the fact that each solution they considered had both pros and cons. Few solutions have all positive or all negative consequences. When making choices, we often make trade-offs, giving up something to get something else.

  • What were the trade-offs you had to make in choosing your solution? In other words, what will you (as a worker) have to give up to feel safer in the workplace?
  • Others may also have to give up something. What might be the cost to an employer? Taxpayers? Others?

[NOTE: The articles on the Kader and Hamlet fires also offer opportunities to discuss bias in reporting. You may want to discuss with the class.]

  • Are the case study articles you read fact or opinion? [Elements of the World Socialist article on the Kader fire and the union article on the Hamlet fire are opinions.]
  • What agendas of the writers are reflected in the reports? [The last sentence of the World Socialist article states that the solution is to establish a “world planned socialist economy”. The union article on the Hamlet Fire criticizes a federal budget that would cut the number of safety inspectors. The Organica News article on the Hamlet fire is an effort to get money to complete a documentary.]


Evaluation is built into each activity. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire worksheet in Activity 1 has students identify the factors that contributed to the Triangle Fire and how both government and labor responded to worker safety concerns. The twelve responses can be given a value of one point each or weighted according to your own grading system. Check student answers using the attached answer sheet.

Small group presentations are the basis for assessment in Activity 2. Groups present to the class a case problem and the approach they have chosen to resolve it. Adjust and weight this assessment rubric to fit your needs.

[NOTE: Some teachers prefer to have evidence of individual student work. This can be achieved by having each student prepare a memorandum recommending a course of action to deal with the case problem she or he examined.]


firePoint out that while all the cases involved worker safety problems, the solutions to the problems were diverse. Students with the same case may even disagree on the best solution. Discuss:

  • All of these cases are concerned with worker safety issues. Why are the solutions so different? [Existing protections, level of enforcement, and the strength of labor organizations vary. Other social, political and economic factors may also enter into the equation.] Emphasize that there is no one size fits all solution for worker safety problems.
  • Your task was to try to identify ways to avoid a tragedy. How might your strategy change after a tragedy occurs? [Tragedies garner public attention and galvanize workers – making it easier to get changes in legislation and negotiate with employers. Sadly, some goals that are considered difficult to achieve before a tragedy become easier to accomplish afterwards.]
  • Employers have been given the primary responsibility for protecting the safety and health of their workers but employees also have responsibilities. Not all efforts to reduce death and injury on the job require collective action. What can individual workers do to help prevent the kinds of tragedies just studied? [Responses may include:
    • Use common sense – acting with caution to prevent hazards (e.g., no smoking, maintain machines).
    • Follow safety rules set by the employer and government
    • Know location of alarms, fire extinguishers, emergency exits, etc.
    • Have a plan of action in case there is a fire. (e.g. know how to use fire extinguishers, how you would escape)
    • Warn management of unsafe conditions.
    • Report violations to government enforcement agencies.]


Have students:

  1. Create a handbook or PowerPoint slide show that illustrates worker health and safety protections when on the job.
    • Workplace Fire Safety summarizes federal workplace fire safety standards established and enforced by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).
    • The AFL-CIO website lists webites relative to workers safety. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.