by Liz Borkowski
Even if you fear your brain won’t hold another shred of public health information by midday Wednesday, don’t miss the Closing General Session, where the timely topic will be “The case for workplace health and safety: 100 years after the Triangle Fire.”
On March 25, 1911, a fire raced through the Triangle Waist Company factory in lower Manhattan. A collapsed fire escape and locked doors prevented many of the garment workers from reaching safety, and 146 workers were killed. Many of them were young women who’d recently emigrated to the United States and were a crucial source of support for their families. Many jumped to their deaths as they tried to escape the flames.
“On that spring afternoon, the sound of frantic screams and wailing fire truck bells awakened the conscience of America,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said in a speech on the 100th anniversary of the Triangle disaster. “The fire opened our eyes to the tragic consequences of wretched working conditions.”
Galvanized by the disaster, advocates demanded — and won — laws requiring better working conditions. Frances Perkins, who witnessed the horrific scene from a nearby park, became secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and played a key role in the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act.
One hundred years later, rates of occupational fatalities and injuries have dropped dramatically. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers improvements in workplace safety to be one of the top 10 U.S. public health achievements of the 20th century. The earliest systematic survey of workplace fatalities covered Allegheny County, Pa., where in 1907, 526 workers were killed in that county alone. The National Safety Council estimated the 1912 toll of occupational fatalities nationwide to be between 18,000 and 21,000. Contrast that to 2009, when 4,551 workers were killed on the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This drop in worker deaths is an important achievement, but the latest numbers also remind us that we still have a long way to go. We’ve also seen some horrific 21st-century workplace disasters as well: 29 workers killed at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia; 11 in the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico; and seven in the explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Washington state.
And then there are the smaller, but no less significant, tragedies in which workers are suffocated in trench collapses, crushed by heavy equipment, electrocuted, burned…the list goes on and on. If you’ve got a few minutes (and if you’re like me, some tissues nearby), I encourage you to visit the Weekly Toll blog to get a clearer picture of the lives we lose to unsafe workplaces every week.
These workplace disasters injure as well as kill, but we don’t even have a satisfactory count of how many people are injured or made ill on the job. From health care workers with back injuries to farm workers poisoned by pesticides, thousands are suffering because their workplaces, while generally safer than those of 1911, aren’t as safe and healthy as they should be.
At tomorrow's Closing General Session, we’ll hear from four great speakers:
• Linda Rae Murray, president of APHA and chief medical officer of Illinois' Cook County Department of Public Health;
• David Michaels, U.S. assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health;
• Leo Girard, international president of the United Steelworkers; and
• Darryl Alexander, director of health and safety for the American Federation of Teachers.
I expect they’ll tell us more about how workplace health and safety has improved and how much it still needs improving. And I’m sure we’ll learn about what the public health community needs to do to make sure the spirit of reform that caught fire after the Triangle disaster burns even brighter.
The Closing General Session runs from 2:30 to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 2.
Liz Borkowski is a research associate at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services and a member of APHA’s Occupational Health Section. She runs the public health blog The Pump Handle.
In the above photo, a construction worker in 1943 is about to affix a wooden plank using a hammer and nails. Notice that he's not wearing any of the protective gear, such as protective eyewear and a hard hat, that he would be required to wear today. Photo courtesy the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health