More than 140 workers died in the blaze due to inadequate fire escapes, lack of fire safety procedures, locked doors, and the fact that the owners got news of the fire and left the building without alerting their employees on the floors above. It was the worst workplace accident that New York City had ever seen and, as a result of the fire, a wide range of safety regulations were enacted at the state and, eventually, the national level to try to prevent another tragedy of this kind. And for the most part those regulations have worked, when they are enforced.
The anniversary of the fire is a reminder that the safety regulations we enjoy today did not spring out a nowhere or out of some overbearing nanny state sentimentality or out of inherent desire to make life difficult for businesses. Rather, many of the workplace regulations and building codes we now have were enacted to prevent very real tragedies. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) wasn’t founded until 60 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned down, but on their website they note that the reforms started as a result of the fire “make up the core of OSHA’s mission.”
Now, over a hundred years after those safety reforms began, it may be necessary to protect the regulations that protect us. There is a very real danger that important safety regulations will get caught up in the president and the GOP’s push to eliminate “burdensome” regulations. Last Friday, Congress passed a resolution to block an OSHA rule related to the allowable time frame for fining employers for not keeping safety records. Then, on the following Monday, Trump signed bills to nullify several regulations put in place by his predecessor, among those was the “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Rule”. Under this rule, if companies had violated safety, labor, or other workplace regulations, they were ineligible to bid on government contracts until steps had been taken to correct the violations.
And this is probably just the beginning. When Trump issued an executive order on “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda” his remarks on the order mentioned that “Every regulation should have to pass a simple test: Does it make life better or safer for American workers or consumers?” That’s a reasonable test for regulations and could help to ensure streamlined and effective regulations. Unfortunately, that sentiment was not reflected in the executive order itself; it makes no mention of safety or health.
The order does repeatedly mention removing only rules that are “unnecessary” or “ineffective,” so it would be hoped that lifesaving safety regulations would be recognized as necessary and effective and retained. But it can sometimes be hard to determine exactly what is necessary in terms of safety. For instance, in the case of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the owners had responded to a recent strike demanding better and safer labor conditions by installing a fire escape, which would seem to meet the necessary regulations, but, tragically, the fire escape was not made to specifications that required it to support the necessary weight of the people fleeing the fire. When some workers tried to use it to get out, it collapsed under them and they all fell to their death.
Making sure that exits were unlocked, practicing fire drills, and equipping their factory with a fire escape that could support a certain weight probably would have seemed like burdensome regulations to the 1911 owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and they are, and so are a lot of other safety regulations; however, if we want to live in a country that values human life and safety, these are burdens that companies must be made to bear.
Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm and you can find her on Twitter @AlexisAPChapman.