On March 25, 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City – lasting only half an hour – transformed how government protects workers. The company was in a building touted as fireproof. The conditions were hazardous -- operators had received many warnings. The owners refused to install sprinklers. They set up the factory for top output – not for safety.
The fire killed 146 workers. They were mostly teenage girls who died because there was no safe way for them to escape. They were trapped on the top three floors of a 10-story building that had bad fire escapes and doors that opened in. Despite the deaths, the factory reopened three days later in the same building. That building still stands – a monument to the need for worker protection and safety.
The New York State Department of Labor of today was forged in that fire a century ago. It was the driving force behind state rules to set standards for wages, hours, sanitary conditions, and workplace safety.
After the Triangle fire, Frances Perkins led the drive for stronger safety measures. She was named New York State Commissioner of Labor in 1929 and later became United States Secretary of Labor in 1933. She was the first woman federal cabinet official. At a memorial on the 50th anniversary of the fire, Ms. Perkins said of the Triangle workers, “They did not die in vain, and we will never forget them.”
One victim of the Triangle fire was Daisy Lopez Fitze. She was a 22-year-old newlywed who was headed to Europe to start a new life with her husband. Daisy took a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory to save some extra money.
Saturday, March 25, 1911 was payday – and Daisy eagerly went to work. She never returned. Read her story A Flower For Daisy linked in the button below, written by her great-niece, Diana Fortuna.
On the centennial of the fire, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health produced Don't Mourn, Organize. Linked below, it quotes leaders in worker safety and health, government, labor, education, and community organizations.
For more details about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, visit these websites:
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Below are downloadable links to A Flower for Daisy by Diana Fortuna and NYCOSH's centennial booklet.