Learning from Tragedy: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Kheel Center / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

We take for granted the legislation and safety protocol that keep us safe at home, school, and work. Yet, these laws had to be proposed and passed to standardize safety protocols. Until 1898, for example, trains weren’t required to have automatic brakes. Think about that for a moment.

Unfortunately, many safety laws came about because of devastating workplace accidents. One of the worst in history was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred on this day 109 years ago. Watch this video from the History Channel. PBS American Experience series also has an episode on this topic, available here. (Note that it is more detailed and graphic than the clip below).

Read this detailed history of the tragedy. Answer these questions:
1. Who was employed at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory?
2. What were the working conditions like?
3. How did the fire begin?
4. Why did so many people perish? How could their deaths have been prevented?

The fire spurred demands for improved working conditions. Newspapers covered the protests, trial, and movement toward laws about workers’ compensation and factory regulations. Editorial cartoons on the topic helped garner support for change. Look at this editorial cartoon and then Cornell University’s collection.

Kheel Center / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

What messages are conveyed? How could these cartoons persuade readers to believe that change is necessary?

Many other horrific workplace accidents have happened because of a lack of safety measures. Although it is grim to think about, these tragedies led to reform and legislation that greatly shaped working conditions for future generations. Why do you think laws had to be passed to reduce workplace dangers? What laws pertain to safety that are in place today? Research the history of the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA) to learn about contemporary regulations.

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