What happened in 1911
to create the start of OSHA?
The OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) is an agency of the United States Department of Labor and its mission is simple, “To assure safe and healthy working conditions for men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance”
The OSHA, which was established with the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, carries out workplace inspections and has various training, compliance assistance, and health and safety recognition programs that are all designed to keep you safe in the workplace.
Yet for all they do today, it actually took a workplace tragedy over 100 years ago to bring about the change required and for the OSHA to be formed.
Triangle Waist Company factory
On March 25th, 1911, fires ravaged the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch building, home of the Triangle Waist Company factory, in New York City’s garment district.
The young women inside the factory, most of whom were immigrant Jewish and Italian women in their early 20’s, although some were as young as 14 and none were older than 39, were trapped behind locked doors with little to no way to escape.
The building only had one fire escape, which promptly collapsed during the attempts to rescue the workers, and with the fire escape broken and the tight and cramped factory blocked with tables, machines and other pieces of equipment, many workers did not make it out to safety.
We now know that that management had locked the doors to prevent theft but with so many people struggling to escape the fire, panicking as they did so, only to be met with doors that opened the wrong way and minimal buckets of water to actually fight the fire, the loss of life was inevitable.
When the fire service arrived they were also ill-equipped as their ladders didn’t reach the top floors of the building and the safety nets were just as ineffective, ripping like paper on impact.
The fire, which had been made worse by a number of preventable problems, ultimately resulted in 146 workers losing their lives that day.
The aftermath and the seeds of change
Following the tragedy, the families of the workers that lost their lives in the fire were distraught at what had happened to their loved ones and the manner of their deaths and soon this anger and pain turned to public outcry as more and more details about the cause of the fire and the terrible working conditions the deceased had endured were released.
As the fire had unfolded people had begun to gather in the streets and had witnessed this travesty first hand, one of those people, Frances Perkins, would later become secretary of Labor under President Roosevelt and she was so horrified by what she saw, stating there and then that something must be done.
Other powerful leaders that also had direct experience with the events of that day would also come together to bring about new workplace standards, passing them into law in the state of New York and becoming trailblazers for the rest of the country which would ultimately follow suit.
From tragedy to change
Change doesn’t occur overnight, however, following the Triangle Waist fire, a movement was happening to bring about change, first in New York and then on a national scale.
Actions were taken to prevent such horrors happening again and these would also act as the moral guidance to bring about change in wage and hour laws and certain other labor protections that would protect workers and their wellbeing.
Frances Perkins, who had witnessed the tragedy first hand, was selected by President Roosevelt to be the new Secretary of Labor in 1933 and as she had an extensive background in occupational safety and health with the state of New York, she soon began making changes.
She wanted to make sure that the workplace was “as safe as science and law can make them” and by 1934 she had created the Bureau of Labor Standards.
Unfortunately, it would take time and there would be other tragedies along the way, such as the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire which resulted in major changes to fire codes and laws and the Farmington mining explosion which brought about the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act but so many of these seeds were sown in New York City in 1911 and they would continue to grow.
Almost 60 years later in 1970, after the passing and progression of numerous laws and acts, those seeds would bear fruit as the Occupational Safety and Health Act was enacted, creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The responsibility of the Bureau of Labor Standards would pass to the newly created OSHA and soon permanent regulatory standards would be rolled out as real change started to take place.
There is still work to do and in an ever-changing working world there are new challenges to face, but so much of the OSHA as it is currently formed can trace its roots back to the tragic events of 1911 and a fire which would go on to impact policy and law over 100 years later.
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