Shirtwaist Fire Leaves Work Hazards Smoldering

Friday, March 25, 2011

A notorious fire that killed New York City female garment workers 100 years ago is good reason to remember another group of predominantly female workers--nurses--who would benefit from New York lawmakers' passage of a safety bill this spring.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which stole the innocent lives of 146 workers in New York's garment industry, most of them young, female and recent immigrants.

The gross violation of basic human safety at the factory--the workers were locked in a room and unable to flee--was a turning point for workers and governmental entities.

From the ashes of the fire rose a labor movement fighting for one common cause: to improve the lives of working people. Labor organizations led an effort to force policy makers to establish the New York State Department of Labor. At the same time, employees were realizing the benefits of labor representation and forming and joining unions. Both the Department of Labor and the tradition of commitment to unionization in New York helps keep workers safe on the job to this day.

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This event haunts and inspires my work as legislative director of the Assembly's subcommittee on workplace safety, chaired by Assemblyman Rory Lancman.

But a century after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, hazardous working conditions, especially for immigrant and minority women, are all too easy to find. For instance, women working in nail salons are surrounded by toxic chemicals, often six or seven days a week, while women working in homecare services are threatened by violence as they enter unfamiliar homes.

In 2009, the percentage of female workers experiencing injuries resulting in days away from work increased from 37 to 39 percent, while the proportion of women in the work force stayed the same, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To counter these growing injury statistics, the subcommittee on workplace safety is working closely with labor representatives.

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