After The Triangle Fire: State And National Workplace Safety Reforms

March 25, 2011 9:06 am ET

After the Triangle Fire disaster, the state of New York created a Factory Investigating Commission to study safety, sanitation, wages, hours and child labor in places like sweatshops, canneries and bakeries. Over the years following the fire, New York adopted 36 of the commission's recommendations into law, meaning that New York led the country in protecting vulnerable workers against the most severe exploitation. Several of the commission members went on to ascend to the national stage, where they shepherded through country-wide regulations. Most notably, commission member Robert F. Wagner became a U.S. senator and while in office saw through the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, granting to workers everywhere the right to organize.

This is part of a series of items Political Correction is publishing in conjunction with the Cry Wolf Project on the history and legacy of the Triangle Fire in commemoration of its 100th anniversary this Friday.

After The Fire, New York Created A Commission To Investigate Safety

Factory Investigating Commission Created To Investigate Factory Safety And Make Safety Recommendations. According to University of Missouri-Kansas City professor Douglas O. Linder: "The public outrage over the horrific loss of life at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory led to the creation of a nine-member Factory Investigating Commission.  The Commission undertook a thorough examination of safety and working conditions in New York factories.  The Commission's recommendations led to what is called 'the golden era in remedial factory legislation.'  During the period 1911 to 1914, thirty-six new laws reforming the state labor code were enacted." [University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School, accessed 3/21/11]

Commission Investigated Wages, Hours, Child Labor, Working Conditions. From Cornell's ILR School: "Taking advantage of a sympathetic Democrat-controlled House and Senate, public opinion demanding action, and a favorable economic climate, the reformers obtained funding to study much more than fire safety in New York City garment shops. They extended their investigation to the whole state, a vast range of trades, and a number of issues including low wages, long hours, child labor, and unsanitary conditions. During the first year of its work, the commission sent investigators to workplaces and held public hearings all over the state, hearing 222 witnesses, including factory workers, public officials, union leaders, and civic leaders. They produced 3,000 pages of testimony and drafted 15 bills, seven of which were defeated in 1912 due to Republican opposition, but passed in the following years." [Cornell University ILR School, accessed 3/21/11]

New York Adopted Dozens Of New Laws Governing Safety

NY Legislature Adopted 36 Of Commission's Laws. From Cornell's ILR School: "By 1915, the recession and subsequent turn in political directions made it problematic to continue appropriations for the commission. After four years of work, the commission ended its investigations. Thirty-six of the laws it drafted were enacted by the New York State legislature. These laws would serve as a model for other states. Twenty years later, the New Deal passed similar legislation at the federal level, with the aid of many of the same individuals who were responsible for the overhaul of the New York labor code after the Triangle Fire." [Cornell University ILR School, accessed 3/21/11]

1912: Automatic Sprinklers, Fire Drills, And Worker Safety. From the Fourth Report of the Factory Investigating Commission:

The following bills recommended by the Commission in its preliminary report were passed by the Legislature during the session of 1912, and became laws:

  1. 1. Registration of factories.
  2. 2. Physical examination of children before employment certificate is issued.
  3. 3. Fire drills.
  4. 4. Automatic sprinklers.
  5. 5. Fire prevention; removal of rubbish; fire-proof receptacles for waste material; protection of gas jets; prohibition of smoking in factories.
  6. 6. Prohibition of the eating of lunch in rooms where poisonous substances are prepared or generated in the process of manufacture; adequate hot and cold washing facilities for such establishments.
  7. 7. Employment prohibited of women within four weeks after child-birth.
  8. 8. Summary power of Commissioner of Labor over unclean and unsanitary factories.

[Fourth Report of the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, Volume I, 2/15/1915, pp. 3-4, via Google Books]

1913: Fire Escapes, Occupant Limits, Bathrooms, Cannery Conditions And Child Labor Laws. From the Fourth Report of the Factory Investigating Commission:

The following bills recommended by the Commission in its second report were enacted into law by the Legislature during the session of 1913:

  1. 1. Reorganization of Labor Department; Industrial Board.
  2. 2. Penalties for violation of Labor Law and Industrial Code.
  3. 3. Fire-proof receptacles; gas jets; smoking.
  4. 4. Fire alarm signal system and fire drills.
  5. 5. Fire escapes and exits; limitation of number of occupants; construction of future factory buildings.
  6. 6. Amendment to Greater New York charter with reference to the Fire Prevention Law.
  7. 7. Prohibition of employment of children under fourteen, in cannery sheds or tenement houses; definition of factory building; definition of tenement house.
  8. 8. Manufacturing in tenements.
  9. 9. Hours of labor of women in canneries.
  10. 10. Housing conditions in labor camps maintained in connection with a factory.
  11. 11. Physical examination of children employed in factories.
  12. 12. Amendment to Child Labor Law; physical examination before issuance of employment certificate; school record; supervision over issuance of employment certificate.
  13. 13. Amendment to Compulsory Education Law; school record.
  14. 14. Night work of women in factories.
  15. 15. Seats for women in factories.
  16. 16. Bakeries.
  17. 17. Cleanliness of workrooms.
  18. 18. Cleanliness of factory buildings.
  19. 19. Ventilation; general; special.
  20. 20. Washing facilities; dressing rooms; water closets.
  21. 21. Accident prevention; lighting of factories and workrooms.
  22. 22. Elevators.
  23. 23. Dangerous trades.
  24. 24. Foundries.
  25. 25. Employment of children in dangerous occupations; employment of women in core-rooms.

[Fourth Report of the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, Volume I, 2/15/1915, pp. 5-6, via Google Books]

1914: Sanitation Regulations And Limited Hours For Children. From the Fourth Report of the Factory Investigating Commission:

The following laws, recommended by the Commission in its third report, were passed by the Legislature in 1914 and have become laws:

  1. 1. Sanitation in mercantile establishments. This covered provisions for seats for female employees; cleanliness of rooms; cleanliness of buildings; size of rooms; ventilation; drinking water; wash rooms and dressing rooms; and water closets.
  2. 2. Hours of labor of women in mercantile establishments limited to fifty-four hours a week in the entire State.
  3. 3. Hours of labor of children between fourteen and sixteen in mercantile establishments reduced from fifty-four to forty-eight hours a week and their employment prohibited for more than eight hours a day or after 6 o'clock in the evening of any day.

[Fourth Report of the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, Volume I, 2/15/1915, p. 10, via Google Books]

Post-Fire Legislation Increased Power Of New York Labor Department. From Cornell's ILR School: "Importantly as well, the new legislation reorganized and increased funding to the New York State Department of Labor. It assigned broad powers to the department, and provided for the creation of an Industrial Board to promulgate the Industrial Code, a set of rules and regulations having the force of law." [Cornell University ILR School, accessed 3/21/11]

NYC Created A Bureau Of Fire Prevention To Streamline Inspections, Codes, And Enforcement. From Cornell's ILR School: "In October 1911 the New York City Board of Aldermen passed an act creating the Bureau of Fire Prevention, aimed at ending confusion over the responsibilities of various city departments and agencies for inspections, codes creation, and enforcement." [Cornell University ILR School, accessed 3/21/11]

  • Bureau Of Fire Prevention Changed Building Codes To Require Fire Alarms, Extinguishers, And Hoses. From Cornell's ILR School: "In the next few years, the new [Bureau of Fire Prevention] made changes to the Municipal Building Code, which provided a measure of protection by requiring the existence of safety devices such as fireproof materials and stairwells, fire alarms, extinguishers, and hoses. [Cornell University ILR School, accessed 3/21/11]
  • Bureau Of Fire Prevention Banned Smoking In Factories. From Cornell's ILR School: The Bureau of Fire Prevention "prohibited smoking in factories by 1916." [Cornell University ILR School, accessed 3/21/11]

Reform Efforts Spread To The National Stage

Fire Commission Member Robert F. Wagner Ascended To National Stage. According to a New York Times background document: "The commission was led by two unlikely reformers, the Tammany Hall politicians Robert F. Wagner and Alfred E. Smith. Aware of the public outrage, they spearheaded changes in state legislation to require fire sprinklers, fire drills and unlocked and outward-swinging doors, and inspired a bill limiting work to 54 hours without overtime. ... Wagner and Smith's work helped them vault respectively to the United States Senate and the governor's mansion. [New York Times, accessed 3/14/11]

In U.S. Senate, Wagner Spearheaded the National Labor Relations Act — "Labor's Magna Carta." Robert F. Wagner was the 1990 U.S. Labor Department Hall of Fame Honoree. From to Wagner's bio: "From an impoverished immigrant childhood to the exalted realm of the United States Senate where he crafted laws on behalf of society's neediest, Robert F. Wagner embodied the American dream. His pioneering legislation gave us hope during the depression of the thirties - emergency relief, employment assistance, jobless help, aid for farmers, Social Security and, most importantly, labor's Magna Carta, the Wagner Act, guaranteeing workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. The author of early national housing legislation, he also fought for civil rights laws in advance of his time." [U.S. Department of Labor, accessed 3/21/11, emphasis added]

  • National Labor Relations Act Gave Organizing Rights To Workers. According to U.S. News & World Report: "The broad intention of the act, commonly known as the Wagner Act after Senator Robert R. Wagner of New York, was to guarantee employees 'the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.' The NLRA applied to all employers involved in interstate commerce except airlines, railroads, agriculture, and government. In order to enforce and maintain those rights, the act included provision for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to arbitrate deadlocked labor-management disputes, guarantee democratic union elections, and penalize unfair labor practices by employers." [U.S. News & World Report, accessed 3/21/11]

Commission Member Frances Perkins Became Roosevelt Labor Secretary And Helped Write Federal Labor Laws. According to a New York Times background document: "And by a striking serendipity, one of the fire's onlookers was 30-year-old Frances Perkins, who had been having tea at a patrician townhouse on Washington Square and heard the wail of fire engines. Perkins, who was part of the New York commission, went on to become Franklin Delano Roosevelt's secretary of labor, the first female cabinet member. In that job, she helped craft federal laws that limited working hours nationally and the age children could work, set floors on wages and inaugurated the social security system. [New York Times, accessed 3/14/11, emphasis added]

Perkins: New Deal Sprung Out Of Triangle Fire. According to a New York Times background document: "Years later [Perkins] said the New Deal was 'based really upon the experiences that we had had in New York State and upon the sacrifices of those who, we faithfully remember with affection and respect, died in that terrible fire on March 25, 1911.'" [New York Times, accessed 3/14/11]

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