The Lives of Workers

Article excerpt

June is National Safety Month. For the American worker, this is a time to celebrate the progress made in employee safety over the past century but also a reminder that there is still much room for improvement. Looking back, some nine million immigrants came to America between 1900 and 1910 seeking better lives and wages. Many found work. Most found harsh workplace conditions and long hours. Deaths were frequent--at least 4,700 died while constructing the Panama Canal, for example. Today, workplace fatalities are not nearly as common but harrowing disasters still occur. Here we look back at a few of the most significant moments in workplace safety.

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Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

March 25, 1911

In 1911, a garment factory fire killed 146 workers after an inferno broke out on the 8th floor and quickly spread upward. Since some exits were locked to prevent theft and the fire escapes were broken or useless, many of the victims met horrific ends after jumping to their deaths. Through this tragedy, however, working conditions in the city's sweatshops would be improved, as local advocates used the incident to gain popular support for unionization.

National Safety Council

October 13, 1913

In 1911, Wisconsin passed the first workers comp law and other states soon followed suit. Rising associated costs caused employers to seriously evaluate safety as a means for savings for the first time. Many companies in the railroad, mining and manufacturing sectors began requiring the use of protective equipment. This all culminated in a collaborative private sector endeavor to pool safety information and data that all member companies could access. That effort created a body that later became known as the National Safety Council and has been advocating for worker safety ever since.

Texas City Disaster

April 15, 1947

The deadliest industrial accident in American history occurred when a fire detonated more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate on board the SS Grandcamp docked in the port of Texas City. Claiming negligent storage of explosives, relatives of the 581 people who died, along with injured survivors, bonded together to file the first-ever class action lawsuit against the U.S. government under the recently created Federal Tort Claims Act. The case would eventually reach the Supreme Court, which ruled 4-3 in favor of the federal government. While the plaintiffs lost, the dissenting justices were highly critical of the government, and the high-profile suit provided a wake-up call for all potential defendants imperiling the lives of American workers. …

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