Fire at Albion Mill, Blackfriars, London,1791. Painting by T. Rowlandson
The history of mass manufacturing is stitched through with accidents and peril. The first factories, which powered the industrial revolution in 18th century Britain, brought death and injury to many workers, including children. Mill fires in the UK were so common that some industrialists bought their own steam fire-engines in an effort to bring down insurance premiums.
The factory model spread fast. By the 19th century, the word ‘sweatshop’ had begun to enter popular parlance, with Charles Kingsley referring to ‘sweaters’ – or garment workers – in his 1850 tract ‘Cheap Clothes & Nasty’ (“Men ought to know the condition of those by whose labour they live”, he warned). Meanwhile, in the US:
“The term ‘sweatshop’… was meant to describe “sweated labor,” work that a big clothing manufacturer contracts out to a smaller firm… The labor was “sweated” because of the conditions of the factories – cramped, crowded, and full of damp heat from the steam-driven pressers.” – Bill Buford, ‘Sweat is Good’, The New Yorker
How did things get better? Safety standards encoded in law, industrial design improvements, the growth of unions, and public outrage helped bring change to the factories of western economies. But all too often, the impetus for reform seemed to require the catalyst of a terrible accident.
Today, the majority of factory accidents (though not all) take place in the developing and newly industrialized world – places like Bangladesh, Pakistan, China and India. The death of more than 200 people this week in a factory on the outskirts of Daka is a challenge both to the Bangladeshi government, and to western retailers.
The cost of change, to some observers, seems prohibitive – but if passed on to western consumers, it might actually be tiny. Jason Motlagh and Susie Taylor report: “An analysis by WRC estimates the garment industry would have to spend some $3 billion over five years to bring Bangladesh’s roughly 4,500 factories up to Western standards. That amounts to less than 10 cents a garment.”
Here are five of the worst factory accidents. There are many, many more. You will notice that we’ve focused on recent decades, but only because these were the best documented online. You may also notice that there are certain factors that the worst incidents have in common. The most frequent is locked doors.
1) May 25, 1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, New York
Death toll: 146 people, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, mostly women.
The owners of Triangle Shirtwaist, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were indicted by a grand jury on charges of manslaughter a few weeks after the fire. You can read a transcript of the proceedings of the case via Cornell University. The chief prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Charles S. Bostwick, pulled no punches.
“Others ran to the Washington place door. One of these was Margaret Schwartz, now dead. And it is for her death that these defendants are now on trial.
Gentlemen of the jury, that door was locked. Those who ran to that door cried out ‘That door is locked. My God, we are lost.’ They were lost. That locked door barred their escape.”