The Fire That Changed American Labor Standards Forever

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire is perhaps one of the defining tragedies in US history, forever changing the face of American labor standards. Prior to this fire, businesses were largely given a free hand in how they ran their shop with minimal regulations and oversight. This allowed for fire doors to be locked to prevent workplace theft or simply taking breaks, or for costs to be cut on now considered essential architectural features such as fire escapes and policies requiring exits to be kept clear.

This tragedy that cost the lives of dozens of innocent people for nothing more than showing up to work is one that still echoes today. Thankfully, a strong response from labor leaders, as well as state and federal politicians, has made it so the chances of this tragedy ever happening again are slim to none.

About the Fire:

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire started actually quite small – a small conflagration in the cutting room of the eighth floor quickly turned into an inferno that engulfed much of the building. This in and of itself would not have been so tragic, but the large amounts of debris gave the fire plenty of fuel to spread, and combine that with lax labor regulations and you find yourself with a perfect blend leading to mass panic and hysteria.

As workers pressed to escape, they were unable to open the fire exits that opened inward, making the press of desperate bodies as deadly as the flames themselves. This is assuming the exit wasn’t locked by management in the first place. With a shoddy fire-escape that collapsed under the weight of fleeing workers adding to the tragedy, you had something so terrible that the only escape for many was to simply jump out a window – leading to as many deaths from the falls as from the fire itself.

The Outcry:

With the progressive movement of the 1910s in full swing around this era, there were a number of labor groups demanding justice for the victims, among them being the National Women’s Trade Union League (NWTUL). Thorough investigations into the fire led to the demand for reforms and greater regulations, and one of their greatest allies was Frances Perkins serving as secretary of the New York City Committee on Public Safety.

Pushing for state level reforms, she was able to convince lawmakers to pass laws and form organizations such as the Factory Investigative Commission to probe into New York factories and propose reforms to the industry. Furthermore, labor unions themselves began organizing strikes in an effort to pressure factory workers into instituting reforms that included reducing the number of hours in the work week and better wages.

The Legacy:

The legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is it brought to light the need for workers to have a voice, and had far reaching effects including the establishment of the Labor Standard’s Bureau which would later evolve into OSHA. Furthermore, the outcry and momentum from the Shirtwaist fire lead to many reforms in working hours and workers’ rights that still echo into today.

The legacy of this fire is one of the primary motivators for many of the legislation in place today that ensure that employers must inform their workers of workplace hazards while making every effort to ensure they have a safe and clean environment, so that tragedies such as these never happen again.


US Department of Labor 

Washington Post

This article was written by Brennen Kliffmueller. As a lifelong US history buff, Brennen knows a few too many tidbits than his friends can usually handle so he instead informs the world through blogging. He is currently a professional writer for To read more of his work, feel free to visit his Google+.