March 21, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 9:53 am
OTHER VOICES

Worker safety still an issue 100 years after Triangle fire

PHOTO/STEVE THORNTON
PHOTO/STEVE THORNTON
A Workers Memorial, near the the Civil War arch in Hartford's Bushnell Park, was dedicated in 2010, just a few weeks after the Kleen Energy plant explosion in Middletown.

On March 25, we mark the 100th anniversary of the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that took the lives of 146 garment workers in New York City. Newspapers recorded the grisly details of young working girls throwing themselves from the ninth floor of the factory to avoid the flames. But Triangle was an entirely preventable tragedy, like most industrial accidents that have plagued working people.

For over a century, wherever workplace safety is concerned, profits have often taken precedence over employee safety. Organizing by unions and their allies has resulted in many victories despite those who block safety reforms and other efforts of working people to gain power over their lives.

In 1911, 100 workers were killed in industrial accidents every day, according to Travelers Insurance expert Dr. Allan Risteen. Another two million were injured on the job.

In the period from 1935 to 1960, 400,000 fatalities were recorded, with another 50 million suffering disabling injuries. In 1970, 14,800 men and women were killed at work.

Today, the national death rate hovers around "only" 16 workers a day. I place the word in quotes because you might very well have known one of the six workers killed or the 30 injured in the Kleen Energy plant explosion in Middletown on Feb. 7, 2010.

It's not like workplaces have to be dangerous. At the start of the 20th century, safety advocates looked to Europe to see how deadly industrial accidents could be prevented. Hartford's Dr. Risteen showed how American workers died in explosions at a rate 10 times greater the English workers and 27 times higher than German workers. More inspections, better construction and mandatory safeguards all contributed to the lower European death rates.

"This is a great country for liberty, but we lay more emphasis on liberty of property than we do on liberty of life," Risteen concluded.

Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health law in 1970, despite intense lobbying by opponents who called OSHA "a statute which serves little useful purpose." Penny-wise, pound foolish opposition has characterized some Connecticut business attitudes for a century.

During the 1911 General Assembly debate to improve safety laws, the Chamber of Commerce argued that "the present laws were adequate." In reality, Hartford hotels used ropes instead of installing outer metal fire escapes for workers and guests. And five Connecticut businesses had been destroyed by fire within just days of the New York Triangle disaster. Children were still working in excess of 58 hours a week. When advocates expressed alarm at how these schedules caused damage to minors' health, the state comptroller scoffed that "the boys and the girls of the factories will take care of themselves."

Today, the fight continues for safe workplaces. The labor/community coalition known as ConnectiCOSH stresses that workers need the proper protections, the right tools, complete training and independent monitoring to keep them safe. But accountability is the key to making sure that companies require workers to "do the job safe, not just quick" according to ConnectiCOSH spokesman Steven Schrag.

CEOs should be held personally responsible for adequate safety and health programs, the group says.

In Hartford's Bushnell Park, near the Civil War arch, is a new Workers Memorial monument that was dedicated a few weeks after the 2010 Middletown explosion. On the memorial is a quote from Mother Jones, who organized workers during the time of the Triangle tragedy. It's a sentiment that should be embraced by labor and business alike: "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."

Steve Thornton is a union organizer and long-time Hartford resident who writes on local history.

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