Prevention Comes a Long Way, but Accidents Remain Preventable
By CYRIL TUOHY, managing editor of Risk & Insurance®
Before September 2001, May 1977 or April 2010, there was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire. It raged 100 years ago today, and left an indelible mark on safety, prevention and workers' compensation.
This particular fire on the upper floors of the Asch Building in New York on March 25, 1911, is seared into the memory of every worker, manager and insurance underwriter in America.
It cost the lives of 146 workers, mostly women of Italian and Jewish heritage, and sent the city and the nation into shock. "How could it happen here?" asked city leaders.
Triangle Shirtwaist turned into 20 minutes of searing hell. Fueled by the oil used in sewing machines and stray bits of garments hanging from the ceiling, the fire sent workers racing for the doors. But they were locked. Looking for another way out, many jumped to their deaths from ninth-floor windows
From the point of view of workplace safety and prevention, the fire was a seminal event.
A century ago, building codes--with the Great Chicago Fire in mind perhaps--were designed to prevent fire spreading from one building to the next, said Michael E. Mowrer, executive vice president of Hartford Steam Boiler.
Triangle Shirtwaist changed that approach. On the safety and prevention side, the fire forced safety engineers to look hard at fire-protection systems within a building, and even within the same floor, Mowrer said.
Before long, some of the safety prevention techniques we take for granted today began showing up in new buildings: fire doors that swing outward, more fire sprinkler systems on ceilings, changes to laws governing the storage of flammable material.
The fire even spurred lawmakers to create the New York State Insurance Fund in 1914.
"We've come a long way with details and codes and standards, many directly from the fire," Mowrer said. "The Life Safety Code was started directly as a result of the Triangle Fire."
Life Safety, hundreds of pages long, has been adopted by many jurisdictions around the country, he added. Local fire codes everywhere are vastly improved from what they were.
U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda L Solis, in an opinion piece published on March 18, wrote that, in 1911, more than 100 workers were estimated to have died on the job in the United States each day--the equivalent of 36,500 workers a year.
In 2010, 4,340 workers were killed on the job, Solis wrote in the Washington Post.
"There's no question that great strides have been made in the workplace," said Michael Barry, vice president of media relations for the Insurance Information Institute.
Industries of all stripes have come a long way ... but still have a ways to go. Despite improvements, workers pay a price when management neglects prevention.
On May 28, 1977, for example, the Beverly Hills Supper Club, a nightclub in Southgate, Ky., erupted in flames. The fire killed 165 people, and for the first time entire industries were exposed to liability lawsuits, according to a retrospective in the Cincinnati Enquirer published 20 years later. (link to this?)
Last April 5, at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, an explosion killed 29 miners. Later that month, 11 workers died on an oil rig explosion and subsequent fire that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon. Results of an investigation published this week found that a malfunctioning blowout preventer was the cause for the oil rig disaster, which quickly became the nation's largest oil spill.
Even 100 years ago, there were signs that future calamities were a foregone conclusion.
Following their acquittal in the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy, one of the two owners of the factory was subsequently arrested for having again locked the doors to his new factory, Mawrer said. Fires in garment factories in Asia continue to kill hundreds of workers over the past five years, he said.
In the last fiscal year, the U.S. Labor Department's Wage and Hour division collected $2.1 million in back wages for 2,215 workers, primarily in Southern California and New York.
"In these cases, vulnerable immigrant workers have been deprived of minimum-wage pay, overtime pay and safe working conditions--all the haunting echoes of Triangle," Solis wrote.
Insurance carriers long ago have learned to take into account the preventive measures as part of their loss-control review and premium calculation, but insureds are not bound by carriers--only to local building codes--to make changes, Barry said.
And so, as it was 100 years ago, it's up to ownership and management, and what they want to spend, to often dictates how effective workplace safety and prevention measures are.
"History is an extraordinary thing," Solis wrote. "You can choose to learn from it, or you can choose to repeat it."
March 25, 2011
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