UW Today

March 23, 2011

Symposium on workplace disasters marks 100th anniversary of Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

March 25, 1911: Firefighters in New York City try to control the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. They couldn't reach workers trapped in the upper stories.

A UW symposium commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire will be held from 4 to 6 p.m., Thursday, March 31 at the UW South Campus Center.

Participants in “Responding to Disasters in the Workplace: Lessons from the Past, of the Present, and for the Future” will discuss the current relevance of lessons from the March 25, 1911,Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and the future of safety at work.

Employers resisted the regulations enacted after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, “despite the clear need for such standards and the public outcry for government intervention into the workplace,” said Noah Seixas, symposium organizer and UW professor of environmental and occupational health sciences.

“The astounding irony is that we are again debating the need for government oversight of safety conditions in industry,” said Seixas. “Despite progress in achieving safety and health standards in industry, workers remain at significant risk.”

In 2009, a total of 4,340 U. S. workers lost their lives on the job.  Deaths in 2010, included those of seven workers caught in a blast and fire at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes, Wash, on April 2, 2010. A few days later, 29 coal miners were killed at the upper Big Branch Mine fire in West Virginia on April 5, 2010. And only 15 days after that, on April 20 an explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers, and led to one of the largest oil spills recorded in U,S, waters.

“In the face of the on-going loss of life in American industry, OSHA, the federal agency charged with developing safety and health regulations and enforcing them, has been targeted for a 20% cut in its 2011 budget,” said Seixas. Similar cuts have been proposed for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the federal institute which conducts research to solve work-related health and safety problems. For example, 2012 funding for NIOSH education and research centers, including the UW Northwest Center for Occupational Health and Safety, has been proposed for elimination. The center trains professionals to evaluate and control workplace hazards.

Symposium presentations will include:

The Past: The Revolution in Workplace Safety and Health: The Triangle Fire and its Aftermath

Speaker: Gerald Markowitz, professor of history, John Jay College of the City University, New York, and co-author of Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution.

The Present: Confronting the Anti-Regulatory Agenda: Current National Advocacy Campaigns to Advance Worker Health and Safety Protections

Speaker: Tom OConnor, director of the National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH), and principal coordinator of the Protecting Workers Alliance.

The Future: Discussion led by a panel of UW graduate students

The symposium will be held in UW South Campus Center Room 316. More information is available at the Northwest Center for Occupational Health and Safety website or by contacting Sean Schmidt at 206-543-2837.

Symposium sponsors include the Northwest Center for Occupational Health and Safety ; the UW Harry Bridges Labor Studies Program; and the UW Bothell, Masters of Arts in Policy Studies.