This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Workers and communities across the country honor the memory of the 146 women and children who perished as a result of locked doors and employer negligence. In 1911 outrage toward such callous disregard for workers galvanized Americans to press for better working conditions, and today, the 100th anniversary gives us an opportunity to reflect on the evolution of workplace safety.
And while many workplaces are safer than they were in 1911, it’s clear we still have a ways to go. Just last year, 4,340 workers were killed on the job and more than 3.3 million more were seriously injured. In 2010 twenty-nine miners died in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in West Virginia, one of the most serious workplace disasters of late.
With recent events fresh on people’s minds, the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire serves as a call for a renewed emphasis on workplace safety. In a panel on the issues surrounding workplace safety, Kimberly Freeman Brown, Executive Director of American Rights at Work, highlighted the relevance of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire for today’s workers, saying “We simply can’t afford to wait for another tragedy to galvanize us to action. We must act now to protect workers’ health, safety, and voice in the workplace.”
With the recent attacks on workers in Wisconsin and across the country, it’s important to remember that the assault on workers’ rights is an attack on workplace safety. For it is only when workers are allowed to organize and collectively bargain that they gain a seat at the table to discuss their work conditions and get answers to the important questions on which their safety, and security, depend.