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The Triangle Shirtwaist fire and 100 years of workers' rights

One hundred years ago this week, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist textile factory proved to be one of the most devastating industrial accidents in American history. The fire began on March 25, 1911, when textile scraps stored on the factory floor caught fire. Without adequate fire protection and fire escapes, 146 workers, mainly young immigrant women, died in the fire. Newspaper readers were shocked to read accounts of some workers who leapt, holding hands, from the ninth story to certain death in order escape the inferno. As is often the case, great tragedy proved to bring about great change.

This accident shocked America's collective conscience and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire proved to be a catalyst for important changes in workplace safety and helped to lay the foundations for the modern workers' compensation system we have today.

In response to the fire, the New York Factory Investigating Commission launched an investigation into the causes of the fire and recommended more than 30 new labor laws designed to protect workers in mills and factories. Many of these laws were adopted across the country and these laws have formed the backbone of modern safety regulations.

Most immediately, state and local governments took a hard look at fire safety. Previously, fire prevention efforts were focused on containing fires and preventing them from spreading from building to building. After the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, more emphasis was placed on helping people inside of burning buildings exit the buildings safely.

The fire also established the political climate to enact workers' compensation laws. Even business leaders were moved by the tragedy and it became increasingly recognized that workers' compensation payments would have to be a cost of doing business.

Since the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, we have seen vast improvement in the way injured workers are treated. Now workers who suffer a workplace injury have the legal right to seek compensation for their pain, suffering, and lost earning capacity.

Source: BusinessInsurance.com, "Triangle Shirtwaist fire brought safety changes," Judy Greenwald, 3/13/2011

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