Smithson: Something old, something new in workplace safety

March 25 will mark 100 years since the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire galvanized a movement for social justice. 

To some, 100 years will seem like a long time but, to others, it may seem like time has barely passed.

It was a Saturday afternoon in New York City, and hundreds of female garment workers prepared to head home at the end of their long workday. 

Some 146 of them would not make it out of the workplace alive.

Their grisly deaths would forever link New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory with the struggle for workers’ rights. 

Their memory would trigger a new era in workplace safety regulation.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company occupied the top three floors of a 10-storey building and produced women’s blouses (which, at the time, were referred to as “shirtwaists” or “waists”). 

Many of the garment workers were teenaged (as young as 14), immigrant females earning less than $400 per year.

The conditions in Triangle’s garment factory have been described as typical of the time. 

Regulation of workplace safety was virtually non-existent and the factory was an example of the pathetic conditions experienced by workers in the early 20th century.

Some of the factory’s exits were apparently locked to protect against employee theft. 

Other doors only opened inwards, rendering them useless in the face of a panicked stampede.

By all accounts, the deadly fire spread swiftly through the ninth floor. 

The workers’ escape was prevented by a stairwell engulfed in smoke and flame, by a locked exit, a disabled elevator, and by the collapse of the only fire escape.

Many died by leaping down the elevator shaft. 

Bodies were later found piled against doors and huddled together in side rooms. 

For the rest, the ninth floor windows offered the only hope of escape.

Blankets and nets, held by rescuers on the ground to catch women who leaped to safety, collapsed under the force. 

Horrified spectators watched as dozens of desperate young women simply flung themselves out of the windows rather than let the fire reach them.

New York City’s sidewalks captured 62 young women that day. 

The company’s owners, Blanck and Harris, sought refuge on the building’s roof—they were later charged with manslaughter but were acquitted in relation to the circumstances leading to the deaths.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire stood for 90 years as New York City’s worst example of mass workplace fatalities. It was eclipsed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Thanks to the emergence of widespread occupational health and safety regulations and government enforcement, the chances of a repeat of this tragedy seem virtually non-existent today in North America.

In British Columbia, however, a recent set of events seemed to set this province’s workplace health and safety record back decades. 

That story involved a tree-planting company, Khaira Enterprises Ltd.

According to published reports, some 30 immigrant employees of Khaira had to be rescued from a remote forestry camp near Golden. 

The workers alleged they endured 15-hour work days, death threats and food shortages, and were forced by their employer to sleep in unventilated shipping containers.

The Khaira employees alleged they were deprived of food, water and toilets and had not been paid for the brush-clearing work they performed. 

They also alleged they were subject to threats and racist comments.

The working conditions have been described as slave-like. B.C.’s Minister of Labour Murray Coell stated, “The conditions described are completely unacceptable for employees.” 

Their employer was recently ordered by the B.C. Employment Standards Branch to pay some $228,000 in back wages to these employees. 

Apparently, the employees are still waiting to receive their money.

Although not a tragedy on the scale of the 1911 Triangle fire, the events at Khaira’s workplace 100 years later are a reminder that workplace safety remains a work in progress.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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