110 years ago today, in a garment factory in lower Manhattan, New York, 600 women tirelessly sewed blouses as they worked in overcrowded spaces lined with long tables and sewing machines. These employees – many of whom were young female immigrants – were working a typical long 12-hour shift for low wages when one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history turned their workplace into a death trap.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 workers and injured dozens more. While trying to escape the fire, they encountered locked doors and broken fire escapes. Many chose to leap from the building in desperation, instead of succumbing to the blaze and smoke, and died on the sidewalks below. The tragic fire took these workers’ lives, decimated their families and communities, and brought widespread attention to the dangerous working conditions in manufacturing, inspiring demands for change. From the ashes of this tragedy and in remembrance of the lives lost, much needed progress was made to help prevent others from suffering the same terrible fate. The next several decades saw the creation of laws and regulations to protect the safety and health of workers, and ultimately the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Now in its 50th year, OSHA has helped transform America’s workplaces in ways that have significantly reduced workplace fatalities, injuries and illnesses. In 1970, the year before OSHA opened its doors, an estimated 14,000 workers died on the job. In 2019, that number had decreased to 5,333 workers, and manufacturing accounted for 15% of all private industry nonfatal injuries and illnesses. We have continued to enforce standards, and provide compliance assistance and training programs that help employers ensure all workers are safe on the job.
As we approach a half-century of improving workplace safety and continue to respond to a global pandemic, OSHA’s mission and the safety and health of every worker are more important than ever. We can’t wait for another workplace crisis to remind us of the important work that needs to be done now. OSHA works hard every day to assure that no worker has to face the same terrible working conditions or tragic end as in that garment factory 110 years ago. Our priority is to make sure all workers, including the most vulnerable, have proper working conditions and safer workplaces, so they can go home to their families at the end of each day.
James Frederick is the principal deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. Follow OSHA on Twitter as @OSHA_DOL.