The law, and the law in the United States in particular, since the manufacturers of so many cutting-edge consumer goods are there, often only improve the safety of their products when they fear a massive damage award. Most are careful of dangers to their customers but some manufacturers neglect to properly test their products and let the mass market be the testing grounds (see 1929: Consumers' Research Inc. (USA), First Consumer Rights Organization).

Even now, in 2013, consumers are often the guinea pigs of the manufacturers, possibly on the cusp of massive injuries that may be latent to the product or its intended use. For example, as the incidence of brain tumors increase, just what damages wireless, cell phone and Bluetooth systems are causing to consumers is still not fully known.

That the law would intervene and protect the citizen from the soulless corporation is not a fact always timely. Sometimes, it comes after disaster strikes and lives are lost, as was the case in 1911.

Triangle Shirtwaist Company

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was situated on the top three floors of the Asch Building in New York City. The factory was notorious messy and crammed with workers - mostly young, immigrant and female. The adjacent image shows the factory scene of a similar factory circa 1911.

The average age was between 15 and 23. The up-to 500 workers earned $6 an hour and worked 6-hours a week. The weekday hours of work were 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Work ended at 4:45 on Saturdays. factory scene circa 1911Waste from the fabric cuttings lay everywhere on the floor of the cramped quarters of humming sewing machines.

The employees had held out for better conditions once already - a 1909 strike which was settled in February of 1910 with only a small raise in pay for the workers.

"FIRE!"

Surrounded by a full contingent of co-workers, cramped quarters, textile waste everywhere, and being somewhere on the top three floors of a ten-story building was a death sentence for many when the yell "FIRE!" rang out on the 8th floor, at 4:30 pm on Saturday, March 25, 1911. There were no sprinklers and the fire escapes were woefully inadequate. Exit doors opened swung inwards and some were even locked (to avoid employees taking breaks or stealing materials).

The fire moved quickly and overwhelmed many of the workers.

That was before the fire escape collapsed from the weight of all the escapees.

There was only one elevator and though it did manage to bring down the first load of desperate employees, it stalled and worked no more.

There were jumpers too, as desperate young workers jumped from the windows as the fire bore down on them. Fireman later reported hearing heavy thuds only to see a body sprawled out right next to them, as a grisly precursor to the jumpers of the World Trade Center in 2001.

It took only fifteen minutes. 146 bodies were recovered, mostly women and young girls.

The Aftermath

The exact genesis of the fire was never determined but with so many rudimentary electric sewing machines in various states of repair, operated by young women surrounded by highly flammable waste (textile waste), the cause was suspected to have been a flying spark or two.

Triangle Shirtwaist Company headlineThe unions pushed to condemn the corporations behind the building and both the company and the local governments started investigations. While massive public memorials were held for the dead, the owners of the building were charged with manslaughter but were acquitted by the jury. Some of the families of the survivors tried civil action and ultimately each family received a paltry $75 settlement award.

But this time, if never before, the interest in worker safety stuck. The changes would not only influence the law in the state of New York but around the world, unions and governments demanded of employers basic protections. A Bureau of Fire Protection was established which pushed for revolutionary legislative and regulatory changes to address the vulnerability of workers. This initiative fostered changes which taken for granted today such as automatic sprinkler systems, unlocked and unobstructed fire exits, lit exit signs and adequate fire escapes.

The piling-up of flammable waste was prohibited and changes were made to elevator shafts so they would perform better and longer in intense heat situations.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of 1911 also convinced many Americans to shift their allegiance from the anti-union and anti-regulation camp led by big industry, to support the union movement.

Some legal historians1 credit the fire with putting in place events that would eventually lead to national workplace safety statutes and worker injury compensation schemes.

Still, advancements to the law that cost 146 lives.

In Russell Hoban's The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (1973), one character says to the other:

"If the past cannot teach the present and the father cannot teach the son, then history need not have bothered to go on, and the world has wasted a great deal of time."

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