In 1911 a terrible factory fire in New York City made possible some of the culminating events in the era of progressive reforms in workers' safety and health. A special state commission conducted an investigation into working conditions, especially those affecting health, in a wide range of industries. It was the most massive effort any state had yet undertaken. The legislature adopted workmen's compensation and completely revised most of the state's occupational safety and health code along progressive lines. Furthermore, a young woman who played an active part in the investigations later applied some of its lessons on a national scale while Secretary of Labor. Her name was Frances Perkins.
It all began on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, when fire broke out in one of the crowded and littered workrooms of the Triangle Waist Company, a woman's shirtwaist manufacturer which occupied the top three floors of the ten stored Ash building near New York's fashionable Washington Square. Fed by waste containers which were full after the day's work, the fire spread quickly throughout the factory, panicking the largely female work force. Workers on the eighth and tenth floors were able to escape unharmed, but those on the ninth floor were not so lucky. There they jammed up at illegally locked exits, at doors blocked by machinery and at the elevator shaft with its single car. The fire department responded quickly, but its ladders reached only to the seventh floor. Many workers crowded by the windows and, as the flames became more intense and hopes of escape more feeble, some of them took the only way out and jumped to the street below. A United Press reporter who witnessed the scene told how he learned "a new sound‑‑a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk." About forty young girls, some of them flaming human torches crashed to the sidewalk and collapsed in broken heaps. None of these survived. Over a hundred more died in the building. According to the reporter, water pumped into the building by the firemen ran red in the gutter.157
The death toll of 146 in the Triangle fire did not match tragedies such as the 354 coal miners killed at Monongah, W. Va., in 1908, but the fire sent out shock waves that jolted the conscience of the city of New York. On April 5, 1911, over 100,000 people joined in a procession up Fifth Avenue to express their grief, as another 400,000 watched. Socialite and reformer Martha Bruere watched the procession go by her window for six hours and wrote "Never have seen a military pageant or triumphant ovation so impressive.... it is dawning on these thousands on thousands that such things do not have to be!" The sorrow and anger of the community were too great, however, to be dissipated in a demonstration. A few days before the funeral procession, civic and religious leaders, reformers, teachers and others addressed a mass meeting held at the Metropolitan Opera. Out of that assembly emerged a Committee on Safety, which served as a clearinghouse of information on fire safety, and more importantly, became an effective political force.
The committee urged the state government to sponsor a thorough investigation. Committee members, joined by representatives of other groups, descended on Albany, the state capital, to lobby. Their timing was fortuitous. A fire in the state house a few days after the Triangle holocaust had rendered the legislators especially receptive to ideas on fire prevention and other safety matters. Safety lobbyists calling for an investigation won the support of state senate majority leader Robert Wagner (later a U.S. Senator) and Alfred E. ("Al") Smith. Shortly afterward both men introduced bills which led to a law being enacted on June 30, 1911, creating a Factory Investigating Commission.
This commission was "to investigate the conditions under which manufacturing is carried on.” The legislature gave it unusual powers and scope. The commission had the power to summon witnesses to testify under oath and had a mandate to look into fire hazards, unsanitary conditions, occupational diseases, effectiveness of factory inspection, tenement manufacturing and many other matters. At first the investigation was limited to the nine largest cities in the state, but that restriction was later lifted. Based on its findings, the commission was to recommend protective programs. Originally created for only one year, the commission was extended three years beyond that, but its last two years were devoted to matters other than safety and health.158
The New York commission was by far the broadest, most thorough study of workers' safety and health done up to that point. It was comparable to the Pittsburgh Survey, only covering an entire state. Through the commission, in the words of Frances Perkins, the flames of the Triangle fire were magnified into "a torch that lighted up the industrial scene."159
A principal reason for the success of the Factory Investigating commission was the distinguished and dedicated group of people who served as members or staff, and who voluntarily contributed expert testimony and supported the commission's efforts. Powerful legislators Robert Wagner and Al Smith were chairman and vice‑chairman, respectively. They were crucial in seeing that the commission's recommendations became law. Commissioner Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, helped rally labor's support behind the commission. Abram Elkus, chief counsel to the commission, contributed notably through his sharp and persistent questioning of witnesses and his commitment to gathering scientific facts. George Price directed the sanitary investigations. Frances Perkins, social reformer and already a recognized expert on certain phases of workers' safety and health, testified before the commission, did investigations, and took the commissioners on field trips to visit factories.160
General counsel Elkus pointed out at the first public hearing on October 10, 1911, that the Triangle fire had brought to public attention dangers to workers, not only from fire but also from "the less obvious but greater menace of unsanitary conditions." Elkus said that while the commission would thoroughly investigate the problems of fire safety in factories, for which it had a mandate from the legislature, the commission would, to the extent that limited resources would permit, investigate what he considered "by far the most important, and at the same time complicated problems before the Commission" — namely factory sanitation and industrial disease. Elkus charged that industrial diseases "have practically been permitted to go unchecked, resulting in the untimely death of thousands." Disease was a serious problem, Elkus stressed, not only from a humanitarian point of view, but also because it diminished the productivity of the economy and was one of the main causes of poverty to workers and their families.161
The Factory Commission's investigations, all done in 1911 and 1912, dwarfed any previous public efforts. It held 59 public hearings around the state and took testimony from 472 witnesses, including employers, workers, union officials and technical experts. Their testimony filled over 7,000 pages. Commission staff investigated 3,385 workplaces in industries ranging from meat packing plants, bakeries and clothing manufacturers to the chemical industry and the lead trades. The commissioners personally visited 50 plants. While the bulk of the voluminous reports of the commission was filled with individual testimony, there were also special reports by experts covering fire safety, building construction, machine guarding, heating, lighting, ventilation and other topics. There were also studies on specific industries, such as chemicals, lead trades, metal trades, printing shops, sweatshops and mercantile establishments.162
The commission's study of the chemical industry was typical. Investigators visited 359 chemical plants, and reported terrible conditions in many of them. The chemical industry had grown prodigiously. By 1912 it accounted for 28 percent of all U.S. industrial production and 17 percent of its wage earners . The report stressed that "In no other industry are perils to the body and dangers to the health of the workers so many, so insidious and so deadly." Workers came in direct contact with lead, arsenic, phosphorus, mercury, injurious gasses, irritating dusts, high temperatures, hot and corrosive liquids, and dangerous explosives. Yet, the commission reported, "there is no industry in which there is less protection to the health and interests of the workers." The most dangerous processes included the manufacture of dyestuffs, benzene, lacquer, coal tar, turpentine and acids. While foreign countries closely regulated their chemical industries, the U.S. was "just awakening to the dangers of this great industry."163
The problems in the chemical industry were many. Factory buildings often were not originally designed for chemical production. Rapid changes in technology and economic conditions discouraged owners from making heavy investment in well‑designed plant and equipment. Older plants had very poor fire protection. Machinery guarding, lighting and sanitary conditions often were bad. Daily contact with dangerous substances and machinery bred a reckless attitude in the workers. Men often handled lead, Paris green, chrome powder and other chemicals "with less thought than these dangerous substances were sand or flour." Surprisingly, acute poisoning was not common. More frequent was the chronic sickness caused by a substance's delayed, long term effects. Only 41 of the 359 plants visited had fan‑driven ventilating systems to remove poisonous gasses and dusts. This is one example of conditions:
“(O)ne often passes through dimly lighted passages where numbers of workers are engaged either in shoveling dangerous mixtures into wheelbarrows or packing various toxic products into barrels, or working around vats, caldrons and tanks filled with dangerous liquids amid clouds of steam or chemical fumes .... In one of the electrolytic plants at Niagara Falls a worker was observed in a dark corner passing under an iron trough clumsily supported on wooden blocks and filled with hot liquid caustic soda, every drop of which ... would produce a painful and permanent injury."164
The high proportion of uneducated, non‑English speaking immigrants working in the chemical industry compounded the safety and health problem. They were employed mostly in unskilled jobs which brought them in close contact with toxic substances, tending vats, furnaces, boilers and tanks measuring out liquids and packing powders. "In no other industry," reported the commission, "is a knowledge of the poisonous products which are handled so necessary to the workers, and yet ... in no industry is the ignorance of the workers as to the deadly nature of the substances with which he works so complete." There was little attempt to teach them about the dangers on their jobs and few warning signs.165
The main purpose of the Factory Investigating Commission was to recommend ways to improve the protection of workers. When it began its investigative hearings in 1911, Abram Elkus had stressed the health problem. The commission's 1912 report concluded that "Health is the principal asset of the working man and working woman," and that government "is bound to do everything in its power to preserve the health of the workers." The core recommendation of the commission was for government to take action to protect the health of working people. In 1911 and 1912 it drafted 26 bills designed to realize this and other worker protection goals.166
If its recommendations were to have any effect, however, the commission needed strong support in Albany. This was virtually assured by the presence on the commission of state legislators Wagner and Smith. Prospects for legislative success were further enhanced when Democrat William Sulzer was elected governor in 1912.
The commission achieved its greatest legislative successes from 1912 through 1914, when 13 of 17 bills it submitted became law. These measures constituted a whole new and much stricter code of factory safety and health laws. They included measures requiring better fire safety efforts, more adequate factory ventilation, improved sanitation and machine guarding, safe operation of elevators, and special measures for foundries, bakeries, stores and other establishments.167
Virtually at the peak of the commission's legislative accomplishments, however, it was dealt a severe blow when Governor Sulzer, a strong supporter, was impeached and removed from office in 1913. This also weakened the Democratic party, the major source of political support for the commission's work. Business opponents now counter‑attacked. They accused the commission of making sensational and unfounded charges against industry and of using inexperienced investigators. Employer groups denounced the new labor code as unfair, impractical and costly, and charged that it would force employers to move to states where the laws were less burdensome. Industry's supporters in the legislature introduced bills to weaken the safety and health laws in various ways, such as exempting plants by narrowing the legal definition of "factory" transferring enforcement from the state labor department to local authorities.
The commission's supporters rallied in its defense. On March 26, 1915, just fours years and a day after the Triangle fire, a coalition of groups held a public meeting to solidify opposition to the "ripper" bills. The commission's supporters were successful. Although many of these bills did pass, all but one was vetoed by the governor.
The Factory Investigating Commission's achievements survived these attacks. Besides a total of 20 laws providing stricter regulation of occupational safety and health conditions, the commission had fostered a greater public awareness of the nature and extent of the problem. Many of the manufacturers investigated had not known about conditions in their own plants. Public authorities in several cities were prompted to do investigations of their own. As the commission put it, "A general awakening has taken place throughout the State." As a delayed result of the commission's work, in 1919 the state adopted an industrial commission to set safety and health rules administratively. Frances Perkins was named to this body. Years later, Perkins termed the Factory Investigating Commission a "turning point" in American attitudes toward social responsibility.168