If you go into almost any public building, sprinkler systems and fire extinguishers are a common sight. In fact, they’re easy to overlook – until a fire actually occurs and they’re needed to put out a blaze.
One reason that smoke detectors, sprinkler systems and fire extinguishers are routinely put into buildings is due to a horrific fire that occurred in New York 110 years ago today. This fire, known as the Triangle Fire, permanently changed how people viewed the workplace and led to significant improvements in workplace safety.
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Background of the Triangle Fire
On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located in the Asch Building in lower Manhattan. The factory manufactured women’s shirtwaists, a type of blouse common to that era.
Factory owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck had a good-sized workforce. Many employees were young women from immigrant families, looking to make money and support their families.
Although the factory did have fire exit doors, they were mostly kept locked. Harris and Blanck were paranoid about workplace theft and kept the doors locked to prevent employees from stealing. They also checked pocketbooks before employees were allowed to leave for the day.
Water buckets were also available, according to History.com. But on that day, one of the fire’s survivors, Mary Domsky-Adams, noted in an interview that the buckets were empty: “On that particular morning, the day of the tragedy, I remarked to my colleagues that the buckets were empty and that if anything were to happen, they would be of no use.”
A fire hose was in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but the valve on the hose was rusted shut.
The fire spread quickly due to the presence of highly flammable materials. Although the employees immediately fled, escaping the blaze was difficult for several reasons:
- According to EHS Today, the employees couldn’t leave through the fire exit doors because they had no means of unlocking them. Other doors only opened inward, so the crowd couldn’t get out quickly.
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) says that long tables and bulky machines trapped some of the Triangle factory workers.
- History.com notes that although there was a nearby fire escape, it collapsed under the weight of the fleeing workers, causing them to fall to their deaths.
- The building had four elevators, but only one of the elevators was working.
To make matters worse, fire department hoses and ladders couldn’t reach the fast-moving fire, burning its way through the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building. As a result, factory workers had a ghastly choice: burn to death as the fire caught up with them or jump to their death from the factory’s windows or an elevator shaft.
Many workers chose to jump from the windows or down an elevator shaft rather than burn. In all, 146 workers lost their lives that day. The victims of the Triangle Fire ranged from age 14 to 43.
Aftermath of the Triangle Fire
According to History.com, the Triangle Fire deeply shocked New Yorkers and the entire nation, due to the appalling loss of life for a fire that could have been prevented. It increased awareness of the need to better protect the safety of workplace employees and “led to changes in safety regulations and more diligent efforts to enforce them.” Also, the fire led to increased union membership and the creation of over 20 laws “covering fire safety, factory inspections and sanitation, and employment rules for women and children.”
To this day, the Triangle Fire still serves as a cautionary tale for workplace safety. So the next time you’re in a building equipped with fire-related equipment, take a few seconds to glance around and be thankful that a sprinkler system and smoke detectors are there.
Better yet, note the location of fire extinguishers and fire exits, and be prepared to use them. That is the most effective tribute you can pay to those 146 Triangle Fire victims who lost their lives that spring day in 1911.