110 Years after Shirtwaist Tragedy, Workplace Fire Safety Still a Priority


It was 110 years ago when 146 young women met their demise in a horrific fire that raced through their crowded workplace. The infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 is as much a tragedy now as it was when occurred. What makes it so tragic is the fact that it didn’t have to happen.

The fire and its aftermath are proof that workplace fire safety must remain a priority in the modern era. Companies cannot take fire safety for granted. They must do everything within their power to guarantee that nothing like Shirtwaist ever happens again. To do otherwise is to needlessly jeopardize even more human lives.

A Fireproof Building That Wasn’t

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located in a 10-story building on the corner of Washington Place and Green Street, in New York City’s Greenwich Village district. The building was attractive to the city’s garment industry specifically because it was marketed as being fireproof. Its steel and iron construction allegedly made the building safe. Except that it wasn’t.

We now know the building was saddled with poor ventilation and inadequate means of egress, among other deficiencies. Making things worse for Triangle Shirtwaist employees were a number of policies implemented by company management. Among them was a decision to lock the doors to prevent employees from escaping outside to take breaks.

Triangle occupied the top three floors of what was then called the Asch Building. On 25th March 1911, that building became the site of a ferocious fire that quickly spread through a factory laden with paper sewing patterns, fabric, and other flammable materials.

The fire spread so quickly that many of the victims died of smoke inhalation before they could ever attempt to escape. Other victims, finding exit doors locked and the single available stairwell too narrow to navigate, opted to jump out the windows in an attempt to save themselves. Words truly cannot describe the horrific nature of the tragedy.

New Building Codes and Labour Laws

Immediately following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, New York State passed a series of eight laws addressing fire safety, sanitation, inspections, and employment rules. They were followed by an additional 25 laws passed the following year. Combined, the 33 pieces of legislation established a framework for labor law and workers’ rights. They eventually were codified in Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms implemented in the 1930s.

Interestingly enough, the US wasn’t alone in rewriting its laws to promote workplace fire safety. Industrialized countries throughout the Western world either had regulations already in place or followed suit. In that sense, the tragic Shirtwaist fire did have a silver lining.

Fire Safety in the UK

Here in the UK, our government takes workplace fire safety very seriously. Our regulations require specific actions by business owners, landlords, and property owners to ensure the risks associated with workplace fires are minimized. Our regulations specifically state that a person is responsible for fire safety on business premises if he or she is one of the following:

  • An employer
  • A business owner
  • A company’s landlord
  • An occupier of company premises
  • Any other person with direct control over business premises.

Under our regulations, every company has at least one responsible person. If more than one exists, they must work together to ensure fire safety. Moreover, their responsibilities go well beyond researching fire extinguisher prices and making sure exit signs are illuminated.

Fire Safety Responsibilities

UK regulations detail exactly what responsible persons must do to ensure fire safety in the workplace. Each of the requirements is encapsulated in the following five principles:

1. Fire Risk Assessment

Companies must carry out fire risk assessments on a regular basis. These assessments are designed to identify potential hazards, who is most at risk due to the hazards, and how said hazards can either be completely avoided or minimized. Obviously, hazards will vary from one setting to the next.

Fire risk assessments must be carried out by either a responsible person or his or her designee. It is not uncommon for UK businesses to outsource assessments to consultancies that specialize in this sort of thing. But even when assessments are outsourced, the responsible person is ultimately held accountable.

2. Informing Staff

Responsible persons must inform all staff members of the identified hazards. They must also be informed of the risk those hazards pose to them. Employees cannot be left in the dark or their safety will be jeopardized.

3. Implement and Maintain Safety Procedures

Next, responsible persons must develop and maintain safety procedures. These procedures are designed to do two things. First, they are intended to mitigate fire risks as much as possible. Examples could include moving flammable materials and adding extra protection to electrical circuits.

Second, safety procedures are designed to mitigate risk in the event a fire does break out. Assuming that all fires cannot be prevented, companies need strategies for keeping employees as safe as possible. Examples include adding new exits and putting up signage directing employees to those exits.

4. Emergency Plan Development

In addition to safety procedures, responsible persons must develop a plan of action in the event of an emergency. This plan includes who will respond to a fire and how. It explains how employees will be kept safe, where they are to go, etc. The more comprehensive the plan, the more effective it will be at minimizing risk.

5. Education and Training

Finally, responsible persons are required to furnish all appropriate information about fire safety to staff members. Where training is required to mitigate risk, it must be provided at no expense to employees. In short, employees must be informed and trained enough to stay safe during fire emergencies.

It is tragic whenever events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occur. Thankfully, such fires do not occur as frequently as they used to. But they still do pop up now and again. The whole point of workplace fire safety is to prevent fires as much as possible. And when they cannot be prevented, the goal is to minimize the risk of injury or death.

Does your company take fire safety seriously? If so, keep up the good work. If not, why not? You owe it to both your employees and customers to keep them as safe as possible while they are on your premises. Failing to do so is simply not acceptable.