A man walks past the Asch building in New York City, the site of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 immigrant workers, most of them young women. Workers were locked into the factory during their shifts, preventing escape. New Yorkers watched in horror from below as workers leapt to their deaths from the windows above. Public outcry over the tragedy led to nationwide debate on workers rights and safety regulations and helped pave the way for strong workers unions.
Arguably, the turning point for occupational safety and health in this country was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in lower Manhattan on March 25, 1911, when 146 garment workers – mostly young women from immigrant families – lost their lives attempting to escape the burning building. Fire exit doors were locked and other doors only opened inward, making it impossible for the onrush of workers to open the doors. A ninth-floor fire escape led nowhere. Fire department ladders and hoses could not reach the upper floors. Many workers died by jumping out of windows and into an elevator shaft as they fought to escape the flames.
“It was the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City history, but it did help begin our nation’s effort to address workplace safety in an organized way that had not existed,” said ASSE President Tom Cecich, CSP, CIH. “The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards. It also caused a concerned group of insurance company safety engineers to start what is now ASSE. The work of occupational safety and health professionals for over a century has contributed to dramatic drops in workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities.”
And a few months after the fire came the creation of this country’s oldest professional safety society, dedicated to supporting its members’ work in protecting workers in every industry, every state and across the globe. That organization – the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) – recognizes this important anniversary and is proud of the role it has played in ensuring that American workers are safer today than ever before.
Founded in October 1911, ASSE has grown into a global membership of more than 37,000 occupational safety and health professionals. But the work of safety organizations, employers and federal agencies like OSHA, NIOSH and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is never complete.
“Whether you work at a construction site, in a restaurant, or with students in a classroom, the lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire never should be forgotten,” Cecich said. “Keeping our workplaces safe takes an unwavering commitment, and not just from safety professionals, but from everyone. There are always improvements to be pursued and exceptional ideas to be shared.”
ASSE encourages workers across the country to pause on Saturday and join the society in paying tribute to the workers who lost their lives in that heartbreaking factory fire. ASSE remains dedicated to the advancement of its members and the safety profession through advocacy, education and standards development.
“We need to remind businesses and our legislators that our nation’s commitment to occupational safety and health systems and policies brings significant value to business and the well-being of the American people,” Cecich said. “Workplace safety not only saves lives, it decreases healthcare and workers’ compensation costs, reduces production delays and improves a company’s reputation.”