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The Grass Roots of Workers' Compensation: 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Just over 100 years ago, a fire in a New York garment factory laid the groundwork for Colorado workers' compensation benefits as well as coverage for workplace injuries and improved working conditions throughout the United States. On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers between the ages of 14 and 48 were killed when the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the factory in which they worked caught fire.

The doors were locked at the direction of the factory owner to keep workers from stealing or taking unauthorized breaks. There was no way out for many after a scrap bin caught fire except for the windows. Workers were killed by smoke inhalation, the fire itself and jumping or falling from top floors of the factory.

The day before the fire, a New York judge had ruled that a compulsory workers' compensation statute in New York, although limited to eight dangerous professions, violated both the state and federal constitutions. After the devastating fire, the New York Constitution was then amended, a new workers' compensation law was passed and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it against challenge in 1917.

The factory owners were brought up on criminal charges of manslaughter after the fire but both were acquitted. The survivors of the deceased workers fought back in civil court and won a judgment against the owners for their role in the workplace deaths. Their award: $75 for each worker killed in the fire.

Currently in Colorado, injured workers and their families are not required to sue their employer for workers' compensation benefits after a workplace injury or death as the survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire did. The no-fault system is intended to provide medical benefits, lost wages and even death benefits to those affected by an on-the-job injury or death as quickly as possible.

Source: OSHA.gov, "Don't Mourn, Organize"

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Eley Law Firm
2000 S. Colorado Blvd. No. 2-740
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