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March marks 100 years since Triangle Shirtwaist fire

This month will make 100 years since the historical Triangle Shirtwaists Factory fire. The accident is remembered as the country's worst urban industrial accident ever, and forever changed the laws surrounding workplace conditions and labor unions.

The tragedy occurred on March 25, 1911, and took the lives of 146 people. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company in downtown New York City employed 275 people, many of whom were teenage Jewish and Italian immigrants and were the breadwinners of their families.

At the end of one normal work day, something, commonly believed to have been a cigarette, set fire to cotton fabric on the building's 8th floor. The employees panicked as the fire spread because of extremely poor safety measures, consisting of 27 water buckets and a rickety fire escape. Doors were kept locked to prevent thieves and union workers from entering, and unlocked doors only opened from the inside. Firefighters were helpless as their hoses could only reach to the 6th floor.

Ultimately, it was a horrific event that created outrage within the public. It forced the New York legislature, and eventually the rest of the states and the federal government, to provide laws that created safer work environments, first by providing escape routes and eliminated fire hazards in sweatshops. The accident also sparked dramatic membership of unions, which had been struggling at the time, and worker safety became a high union priority.

One hundred years after the unfortunate Triangle Shirtwaists Factory fire, our country's workplaces are much safer. There are many programs in place that not only seek to ensure that people are not hurt or killed on the job, but also compensate people when an accident does happen. Because, in fact, there are still several fields of work today that are dangerous by nature such as pipeline, construction, and industrial work. Rightfully, injured workers can often gain compensation for their injuries or lost wages by bringing a civil court claim against the employer or under the state's workers' compensation program.

Source: The Guardian, "Out of the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire," Cory Franklin, 3/6/2011.

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