On March 25, 1911, a fire started on the upper floors of the Asch Building in Manhattan, New York – home to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That fire became one of the deadliest workplace disasters in U.S. history. Tragically, 146 workers – mostly immigrant women and girls – died from the fire, smoke inhalation or jumping from the building to escape. Blocked exits, broken fire escapes and locked doors trapped many of the workers and prevented them from making it out alive. The terrible working conditions exposed by the fire and the resulting public outrage over this preventable tragedy brought a sense of urgency to improve workplace safety and workers’ rights.
Since the Triangle fire, we have made significant progress in workplace safety and health, including significant decreases in workplace fatalities, injuries and illnesses after Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970. The year before OSHA opened our doors, an estimated 14,000 workers died on the job. In 2021, 5,190 workers died on the job. That number is significantly lower than five decades before because of the hard work and diligence of safety and health professionals, including OSHA. But we can’t stop working. We must ensure that effective safety and health management systems are in place in all workplaces to address worker concerns about hazards and unsafe conditions, and that proper controls are in place in every workplace.
We also know there are still some employers who don’t take safety and health seriously. Unfortunately, too many businesses have not made safety part of the fabric of their workplace. We see retail stores ignoring similar hazards of blocked exits, crowded storerooms and boxes stacked in walkways high enough to fall on workers and customers. We see warehouses that make sure customers’ orders are shipped quickly through conditions and processes that are designed for speed but that shortchange safety, resulting in serious worker injuries. We see manufacturing facilities where workers are injured by dangerous machinery or toxic chemicals, well-known hazards that can be prevented.
Workplace hazards put people at risk in 2023 just as in 1911. That is why we continue to inspect and enforce safety and health requirements in workplaces across the country.
At OSHA we want to see safety and health established as a core value in every workplace in America. We want every worker to have a good job, which can’t happen unless they have safe working conditions and are not afraid to come forward and report hazards. Making sure that workplaces are safe and healthful is not just the law; it’s the right thing to do.
On this somber anniversary, we are calling on all employers to reflect and recommit to protecting workers so a tragedy like this doesn’t happen again.
To ask a question about workplace safety and health or report a potential hazard, call 800-321-6742 (OSHA) or file a complaint online.
Jim Frederick is the deputy assistant secretary for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Follow OSHA on Twitter and LinkedIn.