Iconoclast continued from p. 54
ing for OSHA inspections, and OSHA is
often a political target.
in the 21st century than there were in the
1970s. Dangerous jobs have moved overseas, although construction and mining
jobs still remain hazardous.
Silverstein cited the continuing high
death rate in construction site trench
cave-ins and an even higher death rate
Compensation in 1911
In the 1911 Triangle fire, New York had
no workers’ compensation law. It was not
until 1913 that the state finally passed
such a law, which was based largely on the
Of 10 key factors that made the 1946 fire at
Atlanta’s Winecoff Hotel especially fatal, nearly
every one was repeated in the construction of the
MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.
including the multi-fatality Atlas Powder Plant (a DuPont facility) explosion
in Lake Hopatcong, N.J. in December of
1920, or the Feb. 7, 2010, Kleen Energy
Systems power station explosion in Conn.
and the March 26, 2011, Louisville, Ky.
chemical plant explosion. Industrial fires,
fatalities, and explosions seem almost
commonplace, sometimes not becoming
more than a local news event.
Yet after the March 2011 Tokyo Electric nuclear plant meltdown and explosions, worldwide attention was drawn to
the hazards of living in a modern society. Strict rules and guidelines help, but
only if they are carefully obeyed and officially monitored by a responsible governmental agency.
among foreign-born workers, who often
work in temporary jobs with little or no
safety training as an example. He noted
that “most workplaces are not fully compliant with OSHA standards. About 65
percent of OSHA inspections result in at
least one violation being cited.” Many politicians nevertheless oppose greater fund-
fact that in the Triangle fire victims and
their families had little recourse against
the owners. An average of $75 was paid to
each victim, but the fire stirred recognition of the dangers in the city sweatshops.
By 1911, a growing number of states were
passing workers’ compensation laws,
although many were just as quickly declared unconstitutional by conservative
A “safe” public place is often a misleading concept. Atlanta’s Winecoff Hotel was
considered fireproof when 119 people
died in a Dec. 7, 1946 fire, now believed to
have been set by a disgruntled gambler. Yet
of 10 key factors that made the Winecoff
fire especially fatal, nearly every one was
repeated in the construction of the MGM
Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Although the
MGM structure met county codes, a Nov.
21, 1980 fire killed 85 people and injured
more than 700. One key factor in both
was that hotel personnel had little or no
training about what to do in the event of a
fire. When the fire department entered the
lobby of the MGM Grand that morning,
gamblers were still playing the slots in the
smoke-filled game rooms.
Fire experts, risk managers, and insurers know the factors that can make some
locations more toxic than others. In the
Triangle fire, the bits of thread and cloth
scattered on the floor burst into flames. In
the Feb. 10, 2008 Imperial Sugar Co. plant
explosion in Ga. that killed 14 and injured
many more, the culprit was sugar dust.
Grain elevators are also producers of
explosive dusts, and chemical plants are
notorious sources of fatal explosions,
The Triangle Fire Tragedy
Stories about the Triangle Shirtwaist
Factory fire are legends. I first heard
of the event while reading Leon Uris’s
1976 novel Trinity, in which Uris carefully described the event, but changed
its location to Northern Ireland. Tales of
a ghostly figure leading Triangle girls to
the ninth story window to jump add to
the tragic horror of the conflagration.
The fire occurred on a Saturday at
about 4: 45 p.m. when the 575 workers in
the factory were finishing a seven-hour
overtime shift. Huge piles of clippings,
cloth, and thread were stacked across
the eighth, ninth, and 10th floors when
someone carelessly discarded a cigarette.
Noticing the flames, a few workers tried
to douse them with buckets of water, but
there were no fire hoses on standpipes
or sprinklers in the ten-story “fireproof”
building. There were 225 employees on
the floor where the fire occurred.
“Fifty cutters immediately headed down
the Greene Street stairway upon hearing
the first shouts of ‘Fire!’” reported Paul Hashagen, a retired FDNY firefighter, in the
March 2011 issue of Firehouse Magazine,
a publication for fire services. Most of the
women pressed toward the narrow exit on
the Washington Place side and found the
door locked. After several frantic moments,
a man broke the lock and the women
squeezed through and descended in single
file until the lead girl fainted, blocking the
stairs. Behind her on the eighth floor, heat,
smoke and flame pressed down on the
trapped workers. Several panic-stricken