Today’s workplace safety rules and regulations (and the Occupational Safety Training required for workers in construction and other industries) are the direct results of horrible accidents—and gross negligence—at work sites throughout American history. Here are some of the worst workplace tragedies of all time, as well as a look at what we’ve done to make sure they don’t happen again.
Pemberton Mill Collapse (Lawrence, Mass.) 1860
Victims of the disaster at the five-story Pemberton Mill were mostly immigrants, many of them women and children. The initial collapse actually only killed a few dozen workers. However, as rescue efforts were underway, a fire consumed the twisted wreckage, killing those trapped in the rubble. As many as 145 perished.
Why it happened: Faulty construction and reckless management were blamed for the collapse. Heavy machinery was allowed on the upper floors, which were poorly constructed. During the rescue efforts, an oil lantern was knocked over, causing the fire.
How we responded: We didn’t. Many families lost their loved ones (and their income) and became destitute. No one was punished for ignoring load limits or for building an unsafe structure. It was not until the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 that workplace safety rules and reforms became a national priority and it would be many more decades before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created.
Monongah Mining Disaster (West Virginia) 1907
The worst mining disaster in American history was an underground explosion that killed 362 workers. That’s the official number; contemporary estimates put the number at closer to 500. Again, most of them were immigrants and many of them were children. It would be another decade before the first federal child labor laws were enacted.
Why it happened: The explosion was probably caused when methane (also called “firedamp”) ignited the coal dust deep in two shafts. Rescuers didn’t have breathing equipment they needed, and some of them were suffocated trying to save others.
How we responded: The federal government created the Bureau of Mines in response to Monongah and other mine explosions. The federal response was a step in the right direction, but the states would continue to have the most control, and deaths would continue to be a reality for mining industries.
Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster (West Virginia) 1927
Construction of a 3-mile tunnel under Gauley Mountain in West Virginia included the mining of the mineral, silica, which was used to process steel. Many migrant and African-American workers breathed in the harmful dust. We don’t know the actual death toll, because the lung disease they got took a year or more to claim their lives. But it could have been as high as 1,000.
Why it happened: Although managers had breathing masks and breathing equipment, the workers didn’t. The deaths were downplayed by the corporation responsible, Union Carbide, for many years.
How we responded: Workmen’s Compensation was initiated as a response to the disaster. However, OSHA says millions of U.S. workers are still exposed to silica, and The World Health Organization says 300 U.S. workers die from its effects every year.
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (New York City) 1911
90 years before 9/11, 146 New York City garment workers died from fire, smoke inhalation, and jumping to their deaths at a high-rise garment factory. Most victims were young Jewish and Italian immigrant women.
Why it happened: The likely cause was a match or cigarette tossed into a pile of fabric. Many exit doors had been locked when the fire broke out, trapping workers inside.
How we responded: The company’s owners were acquitted of criminal charges, sparking a national debate on workers’ rights. The world’s oldest safety organization, the American Society of Safety Engineers, was founded in response to the disaster. Today, the ASSE membership includes 34,000 occupational safety, health, and environmental professionals.
West Fertilizer Explosion (West, Texas) 2013
Residents thought there was an earthquake when an explosion fueled by fertilizer killed 15 and injured more than 160. Some $100 million in property damage resulted.
Why it happened: A fire (we don’t yet know what caused it) reached a reported 30 or so tons of ammonium nitrate and triggered the blast. It is not yet clear if any federal agencies contributed to the disaster by not following enforcement and inspection rules. The plant’s owners, West Fertilizer Co., failed to disclose unsafe stores of ammonium nitrate and has been found guilty of other safety violations.
How we responded: OSHA and The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality continue to investigate the explosion and have not yet announced a response. However, officials are quietly suggesting that criminal charges are unlikely.