On March 25th, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. Within 18 minutes, 116 young women and 30 men, whose average age was 19, lost their lives in the fire. March 25, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the worst industrial accident in US history up until September 11, 2001.
On April 5, 1911, over 100,000 people joined in a procession up Fifth Avenue to express their grief, as another 400,000 watched. The New York legislature created a commission to “investigate the conditions under which manufacturing is carried on.” The commission’s investigation led to numerous changes in occupational safety standards – factories shall make all doors open outward; all doors shall remain unlocked during business hours; sprinkler systems must be installed if a company employs more than 25 people above ground level; firefighting equipment must be maintained at workplaces; factories must have multiple fire exits, unblocked fire doors, and clear pathways to exits; emergency evacuation plans must be in writing and posted; education for employees is also a must.”
The accident taught the country a painful lesson on workplace safety, but not learned from the experience. On the 79th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a fire at the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx, New York, killed 87 people. On September 3, 1991, a poultry factory in Hamlet, North Carolina caught on fire which killed 25 workers. On May 10, 1993, the fire at Kader Toy Factory in Thailand killed 188 workers, most of whom were young female workers. And, two recent fires in Bangladesh have claimed the lives of almost 40 employees.
Based on an exhaustive, three-year study of the labor and environmental conditions in sewing factories around the world, Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) was launched in January 2000 to ensure lawful, ethical and humane manufacturing globally. The non-profit, independent organization certifies manufacturing facilities based on 12 principles including compliance with laws and workplace regulations, prohibition of forced and child labor, health and safety, hours of work, environment, customs compliance and security. WRAP is today the world’s largest labor and environmental certification program for labor-intensive consumer products manufacturing. The organization enjoys the support of 25 international trade associations including the International Apparel Federation which represents 36 national associations and over 180,000 individual companies.
One hundred years have passed since the tragedy of the Triangle factory fire, but the victims will be remembered forever. Much progress has been made in legislation and established safety standards, but much work needs to be done in compliance and enforcement as witnessed by the recent fire and explosion at the BP refinery in Texas and the massive Gulf Oil Spill in the Caribbean. One of the more effective actions which has been adopted is to educate factory employers and employees on workplace safety. In the past decade, WRAP has conducted a wide range of training courses in over 30 countries. These courses assist factory managers better understand issues on health and safety, the environment and workers’ rights, but also provide hands-on skills to internally monitor factory conditions and solve work-related problems.
“I’ve personally seen a great deal of progress in factories around the world over the past 15 years” said Steve Jesseph, WRAP CEO. “But, we have a long way to go as evidenced by the two recent fires in Bangladesh. The apparel industry became the poster child for what can go wrong in offshore manufacturing but has taken responsibility for factory inspections, training and education to prevent future disasters. And, the industry has become the global leader in compliance, working with local manufacturing partners to improve health and safety programs. Managers in other consumer products areas and heavy industry can learn a great deal from the lessons of their textile and apparel counterparts.”
On this 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the staff of WRAP remembers those who lost their lives and offers prayers that this kind of tragedy never happens again.
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