Of Workers, Shirtwaists, and Wellbeing: Unlocking the “Human Factor” in Employee Health

By | January 18, 2015
Triangle Factory Fire cartoon

“The only remaining exit was locked — a huddle of desperate workers burned to death trying to open it.” (Photo courtesy of Kheel Center, Cornell University https://www.flickr.com/photos/kheelcenter/)

Years ago, in lower Manhattan, flames burst through the windows of a skyscraper. Cornered by a fast-moving fire, employees clung to the window frames until the heat, the flames, and the terror became too much to bear. They leapt from the windows to their certain death, their burning hair and clothes leaving a smoky trail, and crashed smoldering to the ground with an unearthly thud.

This is not an account of a terrorist attack. This is the scene of what, for 90 years prior to 2001, had stood as the worst workplace disaster in New York City history.  Like 9/11, this tragedy changed the world — especially the world of work.

This is the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, in which 146 employees — mostly young immigrant women — perished on March 25, 1911. Modern-day employers and office workers may not see the relevance of the shirtwaist workers, who just 13 months prior to the fire withstood brutality as they picketed to improve their harsh working conditions, to earn a living wage, and to limit work schedules to 54 hours a week. But something — a truth — remains the same. This truth revealed itself to the crowd that gathered around the Asch building in Manhattan that day as the workers plummeted to their deaths. And it was embodied in the humanitarianism that spread across the US as the horrifying facts of the disaster were displayed on the front page of every newspaper in the nation. The truth of an employer’s responsibility for the wellbeing of its employees ingrained itself in the hearts of America.

Shirtwaists were a kind of trendy women’s blouse, and the Triangle factory, which occupied the top three floors of the 10-storey Asch building, could barely make them fast enough to keep up with demand. Each floor of the crowded Triangle factory had two exits. But the Greene Street exit, the one that workers were herded through at the end of each day so that bosses could search the workers’ handbags for stolen goods, was blocked by flames after the blaze exploded near the end of the workday that Saturday.

The only remaining exit, the Washington Place exit, was locked — a huddle of desperate workers burned to death trying to open it. Fire escapes led nowhere and eventually collapsed in a mangled mass of heat-compromised iron.  Workers jumped down the elevator shaft into a heap of corpses on top of the elevator, which had shuttled many panicked workers to safety until the heroic elevator operator knew it could run no more. The fire department responded quickly, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach any of the victims. The factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, managed to escape the inferno. (Later, Blanck and Harris were found not-guilty of wrongdoing in a contrived court case, and had to escape the courthouse undercover as the families of the victims cried for justice. They went on to have additional scuffles with the law over suspicious fires and illegally locked factory doors). Several days after the fire, a funeral procession of 120,000 workers marched in the pouring rain, as 300,000 grief stricken New Yorkers looked on in a demonstration of unity. Marchers pledged never to forget the fate of the young women and men of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.

We dare not sully the memory of this tragedy by comparing the plight of the Triangle workers to the work conditions that most Americans enjoy today. But nor should we dishonor the memory by neglecting to apply the lessons we can draw from it.

Bestowed with a broad charge and powers to investigate the Triangle fire and the work conditions of factory employees throughout the state, the New York  Factory Investigating Commission in 1912 argued that the “human factor is practically neglected in our industrial system,” and reported that employers had “shown a terrible waste of human resources, of human health and life.”

Foreshadowing current events, in which government intercedes where employers fail to regulate themselves, the Commission spelled out the true significance of worker health:

Health is the principal asset of the working man and the working woman… Aside from the humanitarian aspect of the situation, economic considerations demand from the State the careful supervision and protection of its workers. Failure to perform this obligation will produce serious results in the workers of the future. It will affect the working capacity of the future generation.

The Commission recognized that worker health had implications for society as a whole, in the present and in years to come — a consideration absent from today’s discussions of employee wellbeing.

The Commission went on to say:

The State not only possesses the power and the right, but it is charged with the sacred duty of seeing that the worker is properly safeguarded … and that he works under conditions conducive to good health…

Indifference to these matters reflects grossly upon the present day civilization, and it is regrettable that our State and national legislation on the subject of industrial hygiene compares so unfavorably with that of other countries.

Other industrialized nations continue, more than 100 years later, to surpass the US in the protection of total worker health. They emphasize psychosocial health at the workplace, regulate limits on overtime, require paid sick time, and encourage workers to take needed leave to care for newborns and for ailing family members.

The exterior of the Asch building remained intact after the fire (above). The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors.

The exterior of the Asch building remained intact after the fire (above). The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors. (Photo courtesy of the Kheel Center, Cornell University. https://flic.kr/p/93xKQy)

The work of the Commission set the tone for widespread changes in labor practices, without which the comfort many of us enjoy in today’s workplace likely would not exist. (Many of us enjoy comfort, but not all. Recent studies conducted in America’s largest cities report, for example, that more than 70% of low-wage garment workers are subject to overtime pay rate violations, and more than 40% suffer minimum wage violations.)

And, yet, today, when employee health is discussed in journals, in lay media, and at conferences, we persistently neglect the “human factor,” which the Commission identified as the core of worker wellbeing and which served as the cornerstone of labor reform for years to come. The question, “Does employee wellness work?” is posed consistently with an assumption that “wellness working” is measured in employer cost savings or increased output. The hard-heartedness of this commodification of human life stands out in marked contrast to the social consciousness, the compassion, the empathy, and the vision that swept the nation after the Triangle fire. Measuring health in terms of dollars saved? This is a worldview on par with Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the “Shirtwaist Kings.”

Rosaria Maltese was 14 years old. Bettina Maiale and her sister, Frances, were 18 and 21, respectively. Ida Brodsky was 15. Fannie Rosen, an immigrant from Kiev who had worked at the Triangle factory for only two days and was one of the last six victims identified — a century later — was 21 years old. These girls were among the 146 employees who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire on March 25, 1911.

Fannie Rosen, age 21, was one of the last six Triangle Factory fire victims identified

Fannie Rosen, age 21

With a unified voice, Americans pledged that we would never forget these girls and their courageous young coworkers who fought to be treated humanely, who suffered and endured, and left a legacy from which most of us now benefit every day of our lives. Just as we now pledge to always remember the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we once gave our word that we would remember the sacrifice represented by the charred remains of 146 Triangle factory workers.

But every time we argue, or simply assume, that the primary purpose of employee health is not the human factor but is, instead,  simply to save an employer money…we harden ourselves against the memory of Rosaria, Bettina, Frances, Ida, Fannie, and the others.

It’s not too late to unlock the memory of the Triangle factory workers, and to recommit to the  conditions that, in addition to physical safety, are the true determinants of workforce health: reasonable work hours, balance of efforts and rewards; social support; fairness; well designed jobs; work-life fit; manageable commute times; job security; and paid time off for sickness, for vacation, and for the care of loved ones.

As former Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis wrote in her commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, “We must always be a nation that catches workers before they fall.”

Much of the information in this post was drawn from: Kheel Center, Cornell University. The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire, accessed January 15, 2015, http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/index.html.