On March 25, 1911, the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Sadly, 145 people died and another 71 were injured, most of whom were between 16 and 23 years old. The fire started on the eighth floor and a bookkeeper was able to warn people on the tenth floor via telephone. But there was no alarm in the building and no way to notify people on the ninth floor. It was a common practice for managers to lock the doors to the stairwells to prevent the workers from stealing from the company and taking unauthorized breaks. The foreman, who had the key to the stairway doors, had already escaped by another route. Not able to escape from the burning building, many were forced to jump from the eighth, ninth and tenth floors; others crowded the only fire escape ladder. Thought to be broken and poorly anchored before the fire, the ladder soon twisted and collapsed from the overload. Twenty people fell nearly 100 feet to the concrete sidewalk below.
As one might imagine, it took a tragedy like this to enact legislation that requires factories (and other places of employment) to improve safety standards. Over 100 years later, we see that it still takes smaller tragedies for companies to comply with the laws and for governmental agencies to enforce them. Still, this compliance is too often only temporary. The following provides inexpensive strategies to help maintain safe working environments.
Fire safety begins with prevention. Look around your building for electrical hazards such as overloaded outlets and multiple appliances that draw great amounts of power from the same circuit. Make sure wires are in good condition—no frays or breaks in the insulation. Flammable materials should be kept well away from open flames and other potential sources of ignition. Oxidizing chemicals should be properly stored and work spaces should be tidied. Employ a professional fire inspector to help you identify and mitigate other hazards specific to your company.
Error on the side of caution by planning not for the possibility but for the eventuality of a fire in your workplace. OSHA (29CFR1910.1926) requires employers to have a plan in place for when a fire breaks out. This plan should identify fire classes likely to be present, how other workers will be notified, what workers are to do (if anything) to attempt to extinguish the fire, the location of firefighting equipment, how everyone will get out of the fire area safely, and what annual training will be performed to ensure everyone’s safety.
Extinguishing a fire should not be attempted by just anyone. If you expect your employees to extinguish a fire, they must be trained how to do so safely and to know when fighting a blaze is just too dangerous. If you want your workers to evacuate, you must train them how to escape safely.
The minimal cost of safety training should not be paid for with an employee’s life. No one should die at work.