They were 21, 16, 14 years old. Some of them were sisters or friends. All of them are lost.
Earlier this week, the ASSE Safety 2011 expo booths were dismantled, the conference room doors pulled closed and the 4,500+ attendees returned home, but spirit of safety -- and the role ASSE played in the nation's occupational safety evolution -- lives on, thanks in part to a special display that brought to life a tragic event in the nation's workplace safety history.
These shirts (on loan to ASSE from the Remember the Fire Triangle Coalition) are replicas of the shirtwaists workers were producing when a catastrophic fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911. Dozens and dozens of workers -- many of them women and children -- were trapped in the building and unable to escape the blaze. On that day, 146 workers died in a tragedy that ultimately led to the creation of ASSE and prompted workplace safety improvements.
ASSE's display is a tangible reminder of the real people who lost their lives simply because they went to work that day. These replicated shirts include sashes that bear the names of actual victims of the fire. The back of each sash lists the victim's age. ASSE displayed shirts bearing the names of sisters side by side.
Over the last 100 years, new safety legislation, the formation of organizations like ASSE, the fostering of safety professionals, the birth of OSHA in 1971 and a heightened focus on the right for all American workers to have access to safe, healthy workplaces has changed the landscape of occupational safety and health. We still have work to do to better protect workers, but for now, these pieces of cloth drive home the waste and the tragedy that occurs when safety doesn't come first.