One Hundred Years After the Triangle Fire, Disregard for Worker Safety Still the Rule

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, killed 146 young women, most between the ages of 14 and 23. It was a Saturday, the shorter eight-hour day of their six-day work week. On the entire nine-floor factory, only one door was unlocked, and that opened inward; only a few workers were able to escape.

A small number made it into the elevator. Fire ladders were unable to reach beyond the sixth floor, fire escapes collapsed and 27 buckets of water – the only fire prevention available – was no match for the conflagration. Many of the young women burned to death. Most leaped to their deaths in desperate attempts to escape the flames by the fire ladders or the fire blankets, the latter of which collapsed from the weight of their falls.

In the previous year, a successful union movement had established the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York City. The Triangle Factory was a holdout, leaving these young women at the mercy of unscrupulous owners and unsafe working conditions.

Earlier, when the fire commissioner had ordered sprinklers to be installed in warehouses, the Protective League of Property Owners argued that the fire department was seeking to force the use of “cumbersome and costly apparatus.” The Associated Industries of New York insisted that fire code changes would force the “wiping out (of) industry in this state.”[1] Does this sound like what we hear from industry today?

Last year, business interests launched a fierce battle against Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reform legislation. Marc Freedman, a director at the US Chamber of Commerce, is reported to have stated that forcing a company to abate a hazard while it is challenging a citation could cause expensive workplace shutdowns.[2] Freedman expressed no concern for workers' safety or lives.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recorded 5,214 worker fatalities for 2008, the most recent year for which data exists. But even this devastating number is only the official statistic for fatalities from worker injuries that year, and, as such, represents only a fraction of the actual total.

Worker deaths from occupational diseases, primarily from toxic chemical exposures, are conservatively estimated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and other researchers at 50,000 to 60,000 each year, or ten times the number of fatalities from work injuries.[3][4] By 2015, the number of persons disabled from occupational illnesses and injuries is expected to reach 8.5 million.[5] It is a disaster of monumental proportions that goes largely unrecorded. The United States has no comprehensive occupational health data collection system.

Diseases such as cancers and mesothelioma may not show up until decades after workers are exposed to on-the-job health hazards. Certain diseases' long latency periods, combined with a lack of sufficient disease data, is a continuing problem. The underreporting of work-related diseases also severely hampers the epidemiological data-gathering so essential to diagnosis, treatment, prognosis and, ultimately, prevention of occupational diseases, and, because the magnitude of occupational injuries and diseases is not generally known, it tends to be ignored.

OSHA is responsible for setting safety and health standards and for monitoring and ensuring the safety and health of the workplace, but constant legal challenges by industry, which claims that regulations interfere with profits, have hampered OSHA's effectiveness for decades.

Worker deaths often cost an employer far less than correcting a safety or health hazard in the workplace, and employers are virtually immune from prosecution when workers suffer crippling occupational diseases or are injured or killed by corporate negligence.

Under current OSHA regulations, if a worker is killed through the negligence of the employer, it's a mere misdemeanor. An employer's negligence must be proven to be willful before a case proceeds to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for prosecution. Even in the rare cases OSHA deems a citation willful and allows it to go forward, the crime carries a maximum penalty of not more than six months in prison and a fine of not more than $70,000. In OSHA's nearly 40 years of existence, DOJ has prosecuted only 79 willful fatality cases. Only 89 months of prison time were served for all cases combined – an average of just 1.1 month per case.[6] The criminal penalties for the depraved indifference that kills workers are miniscule compared to those for accounting fraud or drug use.

By contrast, in 2009 alone, the EPA prosecuted 387 cases under environmental laws. Convictions in these cases account for a total of 76 years in prison and $96 million in fines.[7]

The average OSHA fine for a serious violation is less than $1,000; the median fine for a worker death after negotiation is less than $5,000. Sadly, there are fewer OSHA inspectors now than there were in 1975. Given this shortfall, it would take 137 years to inspect every workplace in the country just once.

Occupational diseases and injuries are thought to be among the five leading causes of illness and death in our nation.[8] As we lag behind other countries who have established or are working to establish national comprehensive medical databases, we also trail in researching the causes and consequences of occupational illnesses, a field of study that would lead to improved diagnosis, treatment, prognosis and prevention of occupational toxic exposures and resultant diseases.[9] Additionally, “34 of the 50 US states have minimal to no surveillance, or epidemiology, capacity in occupational health.” [10] A national comprehensive occupational disease surveillance database would also lay the groundwork for health care and academic institutions' research into the causes and consequences of occupational illnesses and injuries.

While the United States has set permissible exposure limits on less than 500 of the hundreds of thousands of chemicals used in US workplaces, the European Union (EU) regulates 30,000 workplace chemicals; many chemicals allowed in the US have been banned for years in the EU. Furthermore, scientific data on the few chemicals for which the US has set exposure limits is grossly out of date.

We must change the way we regulate industrial chemicals. In this country, OSHA is required to prove that a chemical is a danger at a specific amount in order to limit it. In the EU, a producer must prove that a chemical is safe before it can be used. We have it backward. The onus of responsibility needs to be on the producer to prove that a chemical is safe, and instead of reviewing each chemical one at a time, similar chemicals should be clustered together during safety reviews. Chemicals should be regulated based on toxicity posed at any point in their lifespan, from manufacture to use and disposal, with a focus on the cumulative impact on the environment. Alternatives to dangerous chemicals must be developed, and the products and technology related to these chemicals must also be made safer.[11]

According to REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals), the EU's regulatory agency for the production and use of chemical substances, the cost of regulation is minimal compared to the cost of saving lives once workers are exposed to toxins. Regulation is estimated at less than one euro per year per person over the regulations' entire 11-year phase-in period.[12] It would be in our best interest to start adopting regulatory practices similar to those of the EU.

OSHA, EPA and other agencies need to work together if they are to regulate toxins in a meaningful way. The consequences of their failure to collaborate are already evident, for example, in the pathogenic sludge from feedlot cattle that ends up in the soil and rivers and causes massive numbers of E. coli infections every year.[13]

The current OSHA regulatory system puts the pressure on OSHA, rather than on the employer, to close an investigation. The process sometimes takes years; meanwhile, workers' safety and health suffer. Immediate abatement is needed to compel employers to abate violations as soon as they are identified.

The Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010 would have required abatement of a violation immediately upon identification, rather than at the end of the negotiation process; the act also would have included victims and family members in the negotiation process, improved whistleblower protections and increased criminal penalties for violations.

There is little public awareness that our 100-year-old workers' compensation system maims and kills with impunity, nor is the public aware of the magnitude of the system's failures, which have wreaked devastating and lasting consequences on families, communities and the environment. The time is long overdue to re-evaluate this system, which meets neither the needs of workers who are seriously injured, ill or toxic-chemical-exposed nor those of the families of workers whose deaths were job-related.

The abuses in medical treatment under workers' compensation are legion and varied. Injured workers experience delays; denial of treatment; inadequate, inappropriate and cursory medical treatment; inhumane treatment, and the shunting of costs that should be paid by workers' compensation to injured workers and their families, as well as others. One must ask why a system of medical treatment is based on the payer's needs, rather than on patients' diagnostic and treatment needs. The major purpose of this duplicitous medical system has been to save money for the employer and the insurer.

The current system is costing us lives and dollars. The economic burden for occupational illness, injury and death in our country falls heavily on families and on taxpayers, with only about one-quarter of the cost being paid by workers' compensation.[14] According to a report by the American Public Health Association, “What is needed is a national program with uniform coverage of health care and adequate loss-of-earnings benefits … independent of industry involvement and insurance industry control.” [15] In fact, it is well-documented that such a program would not only be effective, but would cost far less than the current system.

Unions are a critical component of the solution. No worker is likely to speak up about a dangerous, unsafe or toxic workplace on his or her own; only with union support is one likely to speak out. Public-sector unions have the strongest presence, which is why they are under attack by those who would throw the middle class under the bus and give tax breaks to the wealthy. It should also be noted that OSHA doesn't cover state and local public employees, and neither do 24 of our 50 states.[16]

Increasingly, as a nation, we have been all too willing to push corporate costs onto workers and taxpayers and to cut protections for workers and communities. Serious fines, tort liability and meaningful criminal liability are all needed. Only when corporations are hit meaningfully in the pocketbook will real change occur.

The sheer magnitude of occupational illnesses and injuries cries out for our attention and resolution and would dramatically improve the health of our nation.

As David Michaels points out, regulations don't kill jobs, they stop jobs from killing workers.

1. New York Herald, cited in Triangle Fire Quote Summary, The Cry Wolf Project, p.1,

2. Morris, J. “Congress to consider legislation to toughen toothless OSHA.” The Cutting Edge, October 14, 2010.

3. Leigh, J. Paul; Markowitz, Steven; Fahs, Marianne; Landrigan, Philip. “Costs of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses.” University of Michigan Press, 2000.

4. Steenland, Kyle; Burnett, Carol; Lalich, Nina; et al. “Dying for Work: The Magnitude of US Mortality From Selected Causes of Death Associated With Occupation,” American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Vol 43, pp 461-482, 2003.

5. Daub, H., Hardy, B. B., Kennelly, D., Podoff, D., Schieber, S.J. Social Security Disability Insurance, 1986-2006: Statement by the Social Security Advisory Board. Social Security Bulletin, 66 (3) (2005-2006):1, cited in LaDou, J. Workers' Compensation in the United States: Cost Shifting and Inequities in a Dysfunctional System. New Solutions, Vol 20(3) 291-302, 2010.

6. op.cit. Morris, J.,2010.

7. ibid.

8. LaDou, J. “Occupational Medicine in the United States: A Proposal to Abolish Workers' Compensation and Reestablish the Public Health Model,” International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in the United States. 2006; 12 (2) 154-168.

9. Smecker, Frank, “The Silent Killing of America's Workforce: An Interview with Patrice Woeppel, “ July 23,2010.

1o. Kriebel, D. Jacobs, M.,Markkanen, P., Tickner, J. “Lessons Learned: Solutions for Workplace Safety and Health,” University of Massachusetts, Lowell, MA. 2011, p.126.

11. Geiser, K, Tickner, J., Torrie, Y. “Reforming State-level chemicals management policies in the US: Status, Challenges and Opportunities.” New Solutions, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2009.

12. Ackerman, Frank. “The Unbearable Lightness of Regulatory Costs.” Global Development and Environment Institute, Working Paper No.06-02, Tufts University, 2006, p.6.

13. Woeppel, Patrice. “Depraved Indifference: The Workers' Compensation System.” Universe Press, 2008, p.170.

14. op. cit. Leigh, et al, 2000.

15. American Public Health Association, “Workers' Compensation Reform Policy.” November 10, 2009, New Solutions, Vol.20 (3), 397-404, 2010.

16. Hellman, Gary. “Labor Advocates Say Ohio Bargaining Bill Threatens Protections for Public Employees,” Occupational Safety and Health Daily, March 14, 2011.