Fire Hazards in New York City Factories

In 1911, a fire destroyed a garment factory in New York City, killing 146 workers. Community activists and political leaders called upon the New York General Assembly and the governor to investigate the conditions that started the fire, in the hope that other workplace disasters could be avoided. The Commission’s findings and recommendations resulted in major revisions to the state’s (and later the country’s) occupational safety laws and regulations.

Summary Overview

In 1911, a fire destroyed a garment factory in New York City, killing 146 workers. Community activists and political leaders called upon the New York General Assembly and the governor to investigate the conditions that started the fire, in the hope that other workplace disasters could be avoided. The Commission’s findings and recommendations resulted in major revisions to the state’s (and later the country’s) occupational safety laws and regulations.

Defining Moment

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in a crowded workroom at the Triangle Waist Company, an apparel factory occupying the top three floors of a ten-story building in Manhattan. (A “waist” was an article of women’s clothing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sometimes also called a “shirtwaist,” and this disaster has become known to history as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.) The fire spread quickly throughout the factory, aided by the overabundance of flammable waste in the factory. Employees of the factory (and the rest of the building) were unable to escape the smoke and flame, as emergency exits were blocked by piles of fabric or otherwise locked, and the sole fire escape collapsed. When the fire department arrived, it could not elevate its ladders above the sixth floor and even their innovative high-pressure hoses were unequal to the task, leaving the upper floors vulnerable to the fire. Workers, unable to descend via fire escapes or stairs, dove from windows to their deaths on the street below. One hundred forty-six people, most of whom were women and teenagers, perished in the fire.

In the minds of those who worked for Triangle, the fire and massive loss of life were both foreseeable and avoidable. Two years earlier, the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, representing many of Triangle’s 900 employees, launched a strike to protest working conditions–including the illegal locking of exit doors and the lack of sufficient fire escapes. However, Triangle locked out its striking employees and hired replacements to continue working at the Washington Place factory. Ultimately, the strikers gained some concessions on wages and hours, and though management agreed to safety improvements, those were never undertaken, and conditions deteriorated.

The Triangle disaster sent shockwaves through New York City. Community, religious, and political leaders as well as citizens packed into the Metropolitan Opera House to discuss fire safety at the city’s workplaces, and more than one hundred thousand mourners marched up Fifth Avenue to honor the dead. Shortly after the mass meeting, the march, and the funerals, the call went up to the state capitol in Albany: the government needed to intervene and examine the conditions that led to the deaths of 146 New Yorkers.

From the Metropolitan Opera House meeting, a special committee was established to lead the charge on the seat of state government. The New York Committee on Safety arrived to find a captive audience, as legislators only days before had seen a fire take place in the State House. Led by Senate majority leader Robert F. Wagner and Senator Alfred E. Smith, the New York General Assembly quickly established the Factory Investigating Commission. The commission was the first of its kind in the United States: it was granted the power to investigate all manner of working conditions at manufacturing facilities in every city in the state. It could assess inspection practices, review construction plans, compel testimony under oath, and enter any manufacturing facility for inspection.

The assembly had initially given the commission a one-year mandate but quickly extended that framework to three years. The commission’s investigative work, however, was complete within two years, and was comprehensive and voluminous. Between 1911 and 1912, the commission had visited fifty plants across the state and investigated more than 3,300 others, interviewed nearly 500 witnesses, and conducted fifty-nine public hearings, generating more than 7,000 pages of testimony. Upon completion of its investigation of every major manufacturing industry in New York, the commission issued its findings and recommendations to the assembly, on which the burden to issue new workplace safety and health laws and regulations would next fall.

Document Analysis

The Factory Investigating Commission was established to review existing manufacturing facilities in New York and to ascertain areas in which fire prevention and occupational health might be improved. The central point of reference, understandably, was the Triangle Waist Company fire. However, the commission’s recommendations spoke to a wide range of other potential disasters that loomed in New York’s manufacturing facilities.

Among the commission’s observations were that certain buildings that were believed to be “fireproof” were just as likely to experience a deadly fire as the former tenements and other, older buildings that contained flammable building products (such as wood) in their walls and floors. Factories, the commission reports, were found in a number of structures, including former residential buildings. Builders were increasingly building high-rise lofts to accommodate expanded manufacturing needs, and although these structures were made with cement and other flame-retardant materials (as opposed to wood), they still posed a danger. This risk was not associated with the building materials; instead, it was the prevalence of flammable materials such as cloth, paper, and lubricating oils. The fact that so many workstations were close to each other in such facilities meant that fire could start and spread rapidly even in a flame-resistant structure. The commission cites the fact that the Triangle fire left the building largely intact even when the interior was completely devastated by fire.

Another important finding in the report is the fact that many fires may be prevented by simply demonstrating sensible workplace behavior and practices. For example, the commission believed that the Triangle fire was caused by a lit cigarette. The commission, in its countless interviews, learned that although smoking in manufacturing facilities was considered dangerous, far too many workers continued to smoke on the job.

The commission cites the existence of guidelines for installing automatic sprinklers in certain buildings, but stops short of reiterating those rules. Rather, it focuses on other practices that could prevent another Triangle tragedy. For example, the commission cites the chaos in the Triangle facility when fire spread. Such conditions, the members recommend, could be mitigated by informing the workers of emergency escape protocols and even conducting fire drills. Such practices, the commission argues, could reduce panic and save lives.

Employers and building owners, the commission adds, had a role to play in ensuring the safety of the employees working in New York’s factories. Unblocked exits, adequate fire escapes, and wider stairwells, for example, could have saved the lives of many Triangle employees during that fire. Better lighting and ventilation were also necessary for a healthy workplace, the commission recommends. Furthermore, the commission argues, there was a need for improved industrial hygiene and sanitary standards.

The commission acknowledges that economic development in New York (and the rest of the country) at times moved faster than employee safety regulations. In fact, the commission estimates the number of industrial and manufacturing facilities in the state to be upward of 44,000–its investigation was therefore limited–which meant that it was likely that far more facilities demonstrated subpar worker safety and hygiene issues. Still, the commission recommends that the assembly enact comprehensive standards and rules that would apply to all of the state’s factories, with the goal of protecting the health and safety of employees.

Essential Themes

The Factory Investigating Commission was created in the wake of one of the worst industrial accidents in US history. The commission’s task was not just to ascertain the causes of the Triangle Waist Company fire but also to investigate the entire state’s manufacturing sector to assess the risks of future, similar disasters. The city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had conducted a similar review of its manufacturing facilities. However, the Factory Investigating Commission was distinguished by both its extensive scope and its goal of reviewing every facility in every manufacturing industry New York contained within its borders. What it found and recommended could be reviewed in two general categories.

The first category is that of a disregard for rules and regulations already in place. The Asch Building, in which the Triangle Waist Company was housed, was what the commission deems a “fireproof” building, but a lit cigarette, overcrowded workspaces, and unkempt flammable waste helped the fire spread quickly. A lack of emergency exits and automatic sprinklers, and employee ignorance of fire-escape procedures, contributed to the massive casualty rate. Each of these practices and issues were not new concepts but had apparently been disregarded at Triangle.

The second category is the need for changes in the workplace. The Triangle plant’s employees, like countless other facilities’ workers, did not know what to do in the event of a fire because fire drills were not practiced consistently. Additionally, too many facilities in New York state had inadequate lighting and ventilation, insufficient waste management practices, and other issues that negatively affected worker health and safety. The commission’s recommendations were extensive, moving far beyond fire prevention issues to include adequate dressing rooms, water supplies, toilets, and other necessary workplace resources. Attention to these matters would greatly improve workplace environments across the state, the commission’s members concluded.

It was critical, the commission argued, that the state enact new laws that would impose new rules and protections for workers. The assembly did take this recommendation seriously, passing more than a dozen workplace safety laws in the two years that followed the commission’s conclusion. The federal government, taking this commission’s findings to heart, later followed suit when Frances Perkins, who had assisted with its investigation, became labor secretary in the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Bibliography and Additional Reading

  • Gentzinger, Donna.The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Greensboro: Reynolds, 2008. Print.
  • “The New York Factory Investigating Commission.” United States Department of Labor, 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.
  • New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission.Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission. 3 vols. Albany: Argus, 1912. Print.
  • Stein, Leon.The Triangle Fire. Centennial ed. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2011. Print.
  • Von Drehle, David.Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. New York: Grove, 2004. Print.